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As part of our ongoing alumni interview series, Dev Varma ’15 interviews Shannon Doyne ’00 about her Notre Dame education, her various educational projects, and the writing life. Check out all the insight Shannon has to offer:

sdoyneSo let’s start with the basics. Where are you living now, and what do you do for a living?
I live in Northeastern Pennsylvania in a house that has been in my family for four generations. The town is Pringle, population: 509. It is very close to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, just west of the Pocono Mountain resort area. I am a contributor to The New York Times’ Learning Network blog and a consultant for an after-school mentoring program I co-founded two years ago. It’s called Learning Works.

What’s a normal day in the life of Shannon Doyne?
Working mostly from home is a luxury, something I realize when asked to contemplate what a normal day is for me. Because my schedule now allows me to work well in advance, barring an emergency or breaking news, I can find time every day for writing that isn’t for work, to go to meetings, visit the Learning Works sessions and handle various program-related matters, and even do some extremely cool volunteer work that wouldn’t be possible if I worked a nine-to-five job or if I had clients that needed very fast turn-arounds. Some days, I cut out to read for the Radio Home Visitor, a reading service for the blind and homebound at WRKC Radio King’s College, where my husband David and I have not just one but two radio shows. We play music—everyone asks if it’s talk radio. Heavens, no. What would we talk about for three hours? I also help lead a Zen meditation group at a women’s shelter. And I’m prone to a lunchtime run or a mid-morning yoga class, none of which I could do if I worked in an office.  On the other hand, I’m also prone to working until midnight when I take these breaks. Believe it or not, that’s pretty normal for me.

How did you get involved with the NY Times Learning Network?
I got very lucky. In 2008, I was only freelancing for about a year and a half, working with clients and contacts I had known since my days working at McGraw-Hill and trying to meet more people in the industry, both people who worked for publishing companies and other freelance writers. One such person was writing lessons for The Learning Network at the time. She told me about the urgent need to find someone to write the weekly English/Language Arts lessons, and quickly put in me in touch with her editors. First, I had to submit a writing sample. I was given two or three hours to write a complete lesson that was tied to a Times article, then take the two editors suggestions and revise it in perhaps another hour. We all liked the process and they liked my writing, so we began. Over the years, I’ve taken on more duties for The Learning Network, and have had experiences I never expected, like learning HTML in order to produce posts and traveling to The Times’ printing plant in Queens to speak to teachers about the blog and how to use all of its features in their classrooms. Though I can do all of my work from home, my boss and I like to manufacture reasons to meet at the office in Manhattan. It is the best work relationship I’ve ever had and the writing, editing and producing I do is quite satisfying. And that the blog is free—not subject to the Times’ limit on how many pages one can view without a subscription, I do feel it’s a service we are providing to teachers and students, regardless of where they live and the role The New York Times otherwise plays in their daily life.

Was working with at-risk youth populations always a passion of yours? How did that passion develop in you?
My passion for this work has roots in my own childhood and adolescence. My parents divorced when I was very young and my grandparents, who lived right next door, were very much involved in raising me, which they did with very clear expectations. It’s not that I lived in the fear of disappointing them, but knowing that I could disappoint them made me want to work hard at school, be nice, and help people if I could. As a result, I was a very happy kid. But then I’d go to school and I saw that other kids didn’t have that. Some did. I’d say the majority did not. Just watching the way kids who caused trouble and didn’t care about learning–I’m sure I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but the loneliness, confusion and even despair those kids were projecting made me want to avoid them, which of course echoed everything I was told at home about staying away from bad kids. Teachers were frustrated with them. And there we all were, slowly, maybe even subconsciously, giving up on kids—little kids who were born into a reality they did not choose. Not that I could articulate that, either. I just knew it didn’t seem fair.

All these years, this has stayed with me. For a few years after Notre Dame, I taught creative writing at an arts magnet junior and senior high school in a district with a very high dropout rate, low standardized test scores, frequent instances of police being called in because of fighting. The students at my school, however, had that extra class period each day for them to pursue their dream and their craft: writing, dance, acting, music, visual arts. Our students were happy and they did well, not just in their magnet area but in all their classes. Many got scholarships, too. I think that for some kids, it is hard to see adults as the resource they could be. They just can’t relate. But sometimes, an art teacher or an acting coach can slip through the resistance to authority figures and be the mentor and support a kid needs.

sdoyne puckdrop

That’s what I had in mind for Learning Works. College students are the mentors for the middle school students. It’s great because the mentors are adults, but young enough and in “student mode” themselves, so the kids see themselves on that same path, just not as far. The other youth program I helped start, The Magnolia Project, is for high school girls and also relies on volunteer mentors and guest speakers. The best is when a very professional woman, say, a State Representative or someone with a heavy-duty job, comes in wearing business attire, and proceeds to tell the girls her story of the many struggles and heartbreaks she’s had along her journey, and how she overcame them. They realize that they have been clinging to myths about other people’s lives and just whom they can learn from. Then they start to unlearn all kinds of things that do not serve them, which is kind of like discovering Walt Whitman, punk rock, foreign films and art all on the same day—you get to figure out who you really are. And it’s just crazy-rewarding, how it feels to play a role in being there to help.

How do you feel the creative process and your work with organizations like the Learning Works Program connect? Are there approaches you picked up at ND that you’ve found helpful for your current work?
You probably know people who say, “Well, I just got through that hot yoga class, so the rest of my day is going to be a breeze,” or “This can’t be harder than running a marathon, and I’ve done that, so…” Sometimes I think about the two years I spent at Notre Dame the same way. You learn that you can complete a massive project, even if along the way, you throw out a ton of stuff, you find a new voice, so you therefore hate what you thought was the first half of the thing. You go on. You develop a degree of discernment that will tell you when you are just writing the same poem (or story) over and over again, and when you are truly exploring the same theme from another angle. I also think I found where that line is for me between caring as much as I possibly could about something I’d written and becoming personally involved with it. I remember in workshops in college, I wanted praise for my writing. Me on the page and me sitting there waiting for you to gush over it were one and the same. But at Notre Dame, I saw quickly that the thing to workshop should be the piece you don’t feel confident about, the one you know isn’t working but you aren’t sure why. In my work life since then, this has helped me to fight the urge to gloss over things that didn’t feel right and instead, get advice about them, rather than wasting time talking about all the great things that were happening that don’t need anything but applause by that point. Come to think of it, that applies to much more than just work.

And no question about it, being in a program that’s a fragment of a meteor in the cosmos of the campus is a lot like working in a small office, which I learned when I worked for a nonprofit organization. There are friends and there are the people who will help you grow and evolve, but are these the same people?  Typical workshop flare-ups and the factions that result can be found in every conference room in every office building in the world, so don’t let anyone tell you an M.F.A. is never going to get you anywhere, office politics-wise. All kidding aside, if you are, say, running a program meant to help kids, you will be evaluated on how the kids were before and after the program, not on how you triumphed over your co-workers who had other ideas about what to call the program and what kinds of snacks and volunteers you’d include. In much the same way, your thesis and everything you’ll write about that will be the thing itself. What matters about where you wrote it and with whom is how you used those resources, the things no one may ever know, but the fruits of which are in that work.

And obviously, being given the gift of two years to obsess over words has its legacy in every word I write to this day. I love nothing more.

Are you working on any creative projects right now?
Yes, I continue to write. Right around the time I was finishing my M.F.A., I was convinced those were all my poems. So I set about writing fiction, probably because I had never taken even one fiction workshop, not even a one-day thing, and wanted a new way to drive myself crazy. The first story I ever wrote got published and even won a prize (The Mississippi Prize for Fiction), perhaps because it had no dialogue. I suffered for years trying to write how my characters really would speak, but it all ended up reminding me of when I used to make my Barbie dolls fight. It didn’t stop me, though. I have enough stories to fill a collection and not one but two aborted novels, one of which I co-wrote with a friend. The characters are Huey Lewis and the News. With glee and much profanity, we painted poor Huey right into a corner. But the poems keep coming, too. Essays, too, sometimes. Someday, I hope to make good on some or all of this.

What are you reading right now? Would you recommend it to others?
I’m in deep with Stephen Dixon’s His Wife Leaves Him. I’ve been reading him since I was in my early twenties and there have been times I feared I’d only read his books over and over the rest of my life. I always have some nonfiction going, too, and I’ve been on a kick for some time, reading books and memoirs about the golden days of punk rock. Right now, I’m reading Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad. I figure, at age 39, indulging in my nostalgia is soon going to have a bitter aftertaste following the sweetness. But also, I’m trying to keep alive in my memory what pre-Internet life was like, and reading about bands writing letters to one another and making ‘zines and flyers for their shows is right in line with this mission.

What advice do you have for a first year MFA-er wondering about what the future holds after the degree? 
I think first year M.F.A. students should relax. Even if you are reading this, thinking, “I’m relaxed,” maybe relax even more. Your work will benefit. (Notice, I said relax, not slack. Definitely do not do that.) My sister is a jazz musician and we talk sometimes about the wisdom in playing like you slightly don’t care. In playing a solo, when she isn’t interested in 100% perfection, she goes for broke. And it’s better. So don’t worry if you write something and everyone says, “This doesn’t sound like you.” I say, good. Use this time to mess with the idea of who you are in your writing. Don’t think your thesis is this perfect thing that is waiting for you at the top of the mountain and you just have to stay the course so the pages will practically write themselves. Surprise yourself.

I remember staying up very late at Notre Dame. That old sit-com Newhart came on at 2:30am and its closing credits meant “go to bed.” I got to read and write and teach and drive to the frozen beaches of Lake Michigan and stare at crows in parking lots. And this was my life. I cherished it because I knew it was fleeting. Yet, I don’t envy you first-year students because I also remember the anxiety and worry, too. Did I belong there and did I even want to? Could I write a thesis and if so, was that all I had to say? Did I need workshop and professors to keep me writing? Was I where I should be? So if you feel any of this, please know you aren’t the first. Don’t let the negative things steal your energy, experimentation and output. You’ll look back one day and see how extraordinary this time in your life was.
-Dev Varma ’15

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