A discussion of late nights spent in Mudd, the mid-’00s Oberlin mediasphere, and how Wilder Voice found its name—and its footing.
The first issue of Wilder Voice went to press in 2005. Fifteen years of continuous publication is an accomplishment for any literary magazine today, let alone a college rag with a near-100% turnover rate every four years. To commemorate a decade and a half of providing Oberlin students with a space to share true stories, we are launching a new interview series, “Institutional Memory,” to explore the magazine’s history through conversations with former staff members. For our inaugural installment, we caught up with some of the publication’s first editors—Louise Hanks ’09, Meena Hasan ’09, Heather Jones ’09, Sadie Nachtigal ’09, and John West ’12—over Zoom to ask them about their time at the magazine.
Could you tell us about what Wilder Voice was like when you were working on it?
Heather Jones: It was originally a much smaller publication and magazine, and it was a smaller format—print—and, basically, all of the people who ran it graduated and handed it down, randomly, to me and this other girl, Amanda, who worked on it for a little bit but then she quit. So then I reached out to Sadie and we were like, “We don’t love this name, it’s kind of pretentious”—the Journal of Proper Thought—“we want to rename it and make it something totally different.” We were kind of picturing this full-length, glossy magazine. We wanted to make it a lot more professional and we wanted to incorporate a lot of new writers. It was a very bumpy, stressful start. I remember, it was sophomore year and it was me and Sadie and Annie working on it at that point and, you know, just pulling all-nighters trying to finish this magazine. My favorite story is from when we read it all during the blackout on a flip cell phone.
Meena Hasan: Oh God.
Heather: It was a rough beginning but we have some good memories!
John West: [Holding up a stack of old issues of Wilder Voice] Here they all are.
Sadie Nachtigal: Oh my God, I’m so glad you have full evidence and props. Remind me, Heather, if I’ve got this wrong, but I think the Journal of Proper Thought was very… It was 8×5” format, kind of posturing as a very tongue-in-cheek, Victorian, kind of Oscar Wilde snark vibe. Wasn’t Lena Dunham the editor?
John: She was published in it.
Heather: I think she was one of the editors, actually. She was one of the people who graduated and passed it down. We went to a meeting with her.
Sadie: Yeah, yeah, okay. I mean, there were things we liked about it, and I think we were definitely pretentious in our own way. [We were] like, “This is going to be like the New Yorker!”
John: It was like the New Yorker, Sadie, it was.
Sadie: I’m not so sure.
Sadie: But yeah, at the beginning there were definitely a lot of differences about the style, about the format, about the name, about what type of journalism we were going to do.
Meena: In terms of design, there was always an argument, about how to maintain a certain level of authority while also looking pretty clean and crisp.
John: Yeah, I remember I was really… I had very strong opinions about layout. That was how I started, working in layout, and we wanted to make it a full-size magazine instead of a half-sheet, and then Meena came on board and was like, “John, you have to stop putting borders around everything.” I think one thing you said was, “John, what are you doing?” And I still am like, yeah, you’re right about that, actually.
Meena: But we had to keep the borders! The compromise was to reduce the size. We were very aware of the way design art looks so it makes sense to put borders, but as soon as we graduated, they were gone.
John: I want you to know that in retrospect, you were right and I was wrong. I’m admitting it right here right now: I was wrong about the borders.
Heather: Also, editing was really important. That was a priority. We spent a lot of time with the articles doing rounds of editing. We were really careful. We became really close as a team. We would be in the library and we’d have the article up on the screen and we’d all sit in chairs and group-edit, which was such a special experience.
Sadie: I can’t believe—it was so fun! All the editing! Now I have a real job and it’s like, this is a pale shadow of when I edited cool articles!
John: I do wonder if some of this isn’t tinged with nostalgia, because I also remember being soooo tired by the end. Just totally deranged beyond all belief.
Sadie: Also, 100% it was a bad use of time I was going to regret. At one point, there was a giant reggae festival on Wilder Bowl, and we were in the A-Level. “I really wish we could get all these issues to Oberlin, this is important, people care!” And now I’m like, “Why were we not at the reggae festival?”
Heather: Totally. We tried to make [the editing process] really structured. Quality was super important to us. We focused a lot on bringing in people’s personal stories and making room… we were open to publishing all types of articles and taking risks and talking about things that people were not talking about. I remember we had a Wilder Voice survey and we would ask all of these touchy questions.
John: It continued on for a while.
Louise Hanks: Yeah, I do remember that. I think there were a lot of brave moments in there. I remember having somebody talking about eating disorders; I was talking about sexual assault. There were lots of big moments where people were sort of coming out to the Oberlin community about something that had happened to them or something they were dealing with. And so part of those meetings was, “Let’s look at your article and get it up to snuff,” but it was also—now I’m in the therapy world and it was a little bit of that going on—a lot of validation, and “Oh, this is great!”
We feel like looking back, there were a lot more journalistic stories, and now we’re getting a lot more personal narrative stories. We were wondering if you tried to strike a balance between personal narratives and more journalistic pieces?
Louise: I think we were trying to make a point to connect the personal narratives with bigger issues that were going on at the time. The combo of “This is how I was affected, and this is how it fits in with what’s going on in the world.”
John: I will say that there’s a cycle that happens. I stayed at Oberlin for a non-embarrassing amount of time after everyone else graduated. For a couple of years it was really heavy journalism and then, as a new team of editors took over, including Sasha Jones, Heather’s sister, they wanted to bring in more personal voices, very explicitly. During my tenure, it was much more longform journalism-y, and I think it got a reputation of being explicitly for that. We had a memoir section at the end of the magazine, but that was where memoir was, and everything else was kind of journalistic writing. But one of the issues is that as the reputation develops, it kind of steamrolls a bit and then a new cohort came in and [the magazine] changed again. But that’s kind of the meeting point of what the editors want and what the reputation is.
Sadie: We explicitly wanted to create a space for longform journalism because there wasn’t another outlet [for it] and we wanted to be able to support people and do the research ourselves and do the heavy hitting—it sounds so pretentious—really in-depth, very serious things that we didn’t necessarily have another outlet for.
We’d love to know how you settled on Wilder Voice as the name. And how’d you decide to focus it on longform journalism?
Heather: Sadie came up with the name.
Sadie: I don’t remember how, exactly. I think we were just sitting in Wilder, playing with different names and it was just an idea I had.
John: I will say with the name, I remember there was a big brouhaha from Wilder Hall. They were mad that we had picked Wilder Voice as the name, and as a result, even up until 2012, we had to put, “Wilder Voice is not affiliated in any way with Wilder Hall or the Wilder Student Union” at the end of the magazine.
Sadie: I think I wanted to call it “the Wilder Voice” and it was shot down. That was the right decision. The longform journalism is credited to Heather and John being very much aligned, but I also think we found that there wasn’t much space to really read or write these kinds of really in-depth articles that we wanted to hear. People study such interesting things in their classes and are thinking so seriously about such a wide range of things and there’s not necessarily a forum for people to hear that that has no other constraints than making a good piece. I think, also—and feel free to disagree with or add onto this—but we felt like it was a time when longform journalism was super super in danger. I thought that I might never write for the New Yorker, I might never get a full-time job where anyone pays me to write longform journalism about some topic I find interesting. [I thought that working at Wilder Voice] might be the only chance where I don’t have to worry about being paid and can just do that with my friends.
Heather: That was definitely an element of the beauty of the freedom to devote so many pages to a story, but cost was always an issue, especially at the beginning. I just remember walking through the snow to so many different co-op meetings to try and ask for twenty-five dollars. Like, waiting an hour to speak just to be like, “We request 25 dollars for Wilder Voice” and doing that seven times over the course of the night to get a printing budget. But that was something we really wanted, to get a really professional-looking magazine, and that was more expensive than what had been spent on it before, so raising that money was a lot of work. I know at least after we left, Wilder Voice got more funding and got an office, but that was the uphill struggle in the beginning. But [it was important because] how long [Wilder Voice] was was very valuable because we fought for that.
Heather: Going back to what we were saying about it being a tight crew, this was kind of our thing, our extracurricular, and we did spend a lot of time on it. I think that was just one of the keys to success, and it was fun to spend a lot of time on it because we all got along so well so it was easy to, you know, sacrifice a night or whatever. And yeah [there was] just the fun of making a lot of creative decisions together and making a product that we felt really proud of. But it did take a lot of time. I feel like I devoted as much time to Wilder Voice as I did to any classes.
John: Or the aggregate of all of the classes, even.
Sadie: John put in a lot of hours.
John: I had to make sure everything lined up perfectly, you know, it took a lot to put in all the borders…
Sadie: It’s not like there was never tension or anything, but we all had very high standards and respected each other’s high standards and were rigorous in different ways. Maybe it’s not even that, maybe it’s losing a sense of perspective for a college magazine. I remember we would proofread together and print out the entire magazine and everyone would read it and read it and read it, and no one was like, “This isn’t a good use of our time!” We were all just like, “There can be no typos ever!” And then we would be like, “Are we doing Oxford commas?” and we would have a long conversation about that. And then it would come out and there would be typos and we would be so crazy from finals anyway, someone would find a typo and we’d just cry or something.
Heather: Having been in the work world for a long time, it is hard to find positive work environments, so [Wilder Voice was] special. It’s a really good experience to have before going into the work world, and I feel like the experience of Wilder Voice is what has helped me get most of my jobs. It’s how I got my first job. I was a lowly marketing intern [in the publishing world]—I hate marketing, that was just the only way I could get in—and I was carrying a manuscript to the editing team and I found a typo in this final manuscript and pulled it out and was like, “Hi, I just found this little typo.” And the editor was like, “Hi, who are you, what’s your name?” and then I got an interview two weeks later. Wilder Voice is what trained me to be an editor, none of my classes, it was just working with you guys and being rigorous and having those high standards and being really obsessive over everything, which, you know, you could argue was healthy or unhealthy…
Sadie: I think it’s good to have that personal relationship [with other staff members]. You feel that feeling when things really [work] and then you kind of search for that again in the next thing you do. Even today, I was having lunch and someone was like, “What’s your ideal work environment?” and I was like, “Wilder Voice.”
We’re very curious, as far as you all were aware, what was Wilder Voice’s reputation in comparison with the Plum Creek Review or the Grape?
Heather: What stands out to me is that I felt very intimidated by the people who worked at the Grape. It seemed very insular, like you might not be accepted. I just remember feeling kind of afraid to even go in… And there was a really certain tone for all the articles that I thought was cool, but I just don’t think I probably could have done it. And I remember the Review feeling really restricted, it wasn’t a place where you could be really open and creative.
Sadie: Absolutely, [when I worked at the Review] it was a very intense and unhappy environment where people were just in and out, getting paid and leaving. I mean, it was the college newspaper so it had a more standardized kind of approach. And also, just reading them from the outside, the Review has a very traditional voice, very straight-laced, whereas the Grape was a very specific counterpoint. I enjoyed reading the Grape but it was a very specific snark that I think even now would be pretty controversial in terms of not being super inclusive or PC. Sometimes I felt like it was speaking to a very specific inside joke. Plum Creek, they were focused more on poetry and fiction, and we were more research-based and longform format.
John: I’m actually married to the former editor of the Plum Creek Review, in a little bit of Oberlin incestuousness for you, but yeah, that’s exactly right. What set Wilder Voice apart was that there were no other publications that were dedicated to longform journalism. The Plum Creek Review didn’t publish nonfiction, it was fiction and poetry and art, and there was nothing creative about the Review—it was important work that the Review was doing but it was not creative nonfiction, and the Grape was shortform.
Could you talk a little bit about the art that you published in the magazine? Because the art we’ve seen in Wilder Voice has always been really professional.
Meena: There’s definitely a certain kind of art that’s best for publishing. We knew the printer really well and we knew those limitations and simple things like high contrast, interesting compositions, graphic shapes, those were kind of the guiding principles for what I was looking for. I was also in the Senior Studio class and I’m pretty sure I asked almost everybody in that class for a submission at some point and everyone was more than happy to do that. John Pearson was this amazing silkscreen professor and he guided this very strong design mentality. A few students who worked with him after we graduated were fully indebted to him.
What did you all major in at Oberlin?
Heather: Comp lit and French
Sadie: Comp lit, French, and Russian
John: Philosophy and historical performance
John, what do you play?
John: Recorder. Musical, really musical!
What did you want to do with the magazine that you never got to do?
John: I didn’t want to do it at the time, but now in retrospect I wish I had been more attuned to the interplay of how Oberlin sits in the broader northeast Ohio region. I think it would have been really cool to, for example, commission someone who’s a northeast Ohio writer to write about [Oberlin’s position in the region]. All of this stuff that would have been really cool to do about the landscape of Lorain County that we just never did. That was really a missed opportunity.
Heather: I completely agree with that. I wish we could have done more journalism about our local context and stuff that was happening in Cleveland and around that area. We also wanted to do publishing and that was something that John did after we left, but we had all talked about starting our own publishing company after graduating, and that was a dream we had until we realized that the publishing industry was kind of crashing…
Sadie: Graduating in 2009!
Heather: We had this dream of doing more publishing, creating space for people to tell new stories that might not have been getting heard or might not have worked at traditional publishing houses but that we would have published and made them really artsy. I remember Meena having some really cool ideas about what that could look like. One of the really cool things we started doing was including professors and having them write pieces.
John: Yeah, and the professors loved it. We worked with Brian Doan, who I think passed away really sadly a couple of years ago, but he was a film professor and he was quite young and he wrote a really great piece for us. I remember he reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he had put that piece on a CV for a job application—he was really excited about the fact that he had published this thing. He made it seem like he had to publish a certain kind of thing as an academic, so it was fun for him to get to write something a little more adventurous. Even though it was for a student magazine, he really appreciated being able to do that. That was really gratifying. Laurie McMillin wrote for us, I remember.
Meena: Wilder Voice is just such an open platform that embraces subtlety and nuance as a really core value of its structure. We were so full of ideas and so passionate about so many options. There were so many different ways it could go. I think there was one point we were reaching out to publications at other schools and trying to build partnerships across the country and have guest writers and open up that network even more. I don’t think we ever got there, but that would be cool to set up an exchange.
John: One thing I’ll say… I don’t mean this as a discouraging thing about the web, I love the web, but […] We made a website and I don’t think people really went there. Times are different now than they were in 2011 or whenever, but one thing that’s really exciting and interesting about being on a college campus is that you’re on a college campus. It’s so rare to live in this small town with all your friends, and even rarer to have cultural artifacts that only have meaning within that small town with all your friends. What made Wilder Voice so special to me was the physicality of it, because it was tethered to this place with all these people, and we all tried to make messy meaning there together. I think that there’s something really unique and special and wonderful about a geographical area, because now, especially if you’re in a certain cohort, you might live in New York and there are a lot of friends in your neighborhood, but there’s something really unique and wonderful about the physicality of Oberlin and the way that a magazine or publication can inhabit that space.
Louise Hanks graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and currently works at a middle school in Austin, Texas where she facilitates restorative justice practices for staff and students. Louise holds a Master’s in social work and is pursuing her clinical license. She’s passionate about mental health and justice reform, loves beach volleyball and dancing, and can’t seem to ever leave Texas for good.
Meena Hasan received her B.A. in Studio Art from Oberlin College in 2009 and her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale School of Art in 2013, where she won the Carol Schlosberg Memorial Prize for Painting. She has participated in a number of group exhibitions including Sheherezade’s Gift at the Center for Book Arts, NY, Stages at Zürcher Gallery, NY, Bosch Young Talent Show at The Stedelijk Museum, Den Bosch, The Netherlands and Ying/Yang at 0.0 Gallery, L.A. Currently, Meena is a full-time Lecturer in Painting at the School of Visual Arts at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts.
Heather Jones graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and currently works as the program director for an Austin, Texas creative writing nonprofit called Austin Bat Cave. Heather holds a Master’s in social work from the University in Texas at Austin and is passionate about developing programs that teach writing as a tool for activism, healing, and social change.
Sadie Nachtigal graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and she currently works as EU marketing manager for Employer Brand at Amazon. She holds a Master’s in International Management from ESCP Europe, and lives in Paris, where she spends her time finding new ways to explore the city, most recently by bike and on roller skates.
John West graduated from Oberlin in 2012, and he currently works as a computational journalist and technologist in the R&D Lab of the Wall Street Journal. He holds an MFA in writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he lives in Boston with his partner, a baby, and a cat.
First image courtesy of John West; all others courtesy of Heather Jones.