I had the honor of speaking at the 2017 Shapiro Awards Gala at the University of Toledo, my alma mater. The gala is held annually, serving as an awards ceremony for both the Shapiro writing contest as well as the English department’s awards for student achievements across many categories.
When the department approached me about speaking, they asked me to talk about how writing and literacy have influenced my personal and professional life. As a born-and-raised Toledoan — like many UT students — who transplanted elsewhere in the US for work, I tried to think about what I needed to hear when I was an undergrad, and what advice I could give students who might be worried or discouraged about the future.
Below are my written notes from the original script I wrote in preparation for the Shapiro Awards. Some of my eventual additions are included in brackets.
Good evening, and congratulations to all of this year’s Shapiro Award winners and honorees. I’m Feliza Casano, and I graduated from the University of Toledo in 2012. Since then, writing and editing have been major components in both my personal and professional life. [And I didn’t realize that the two professors I was planning to talk about tonight would actually be here tonight, so excuse my slight embarrassment. Please.]
I’m sure many of you remember who or what it was that started your love for reading and writing. For me, it began with The Monster at the End of This Book, which is a picture book about Grover from Sesame Street. My mom always read it to me in Grover’s voice, and my fascination with the book led to my endless desire to consume words. It was my sixth grade English teacher, Miss Debbe, who made me consider whether my knack for clear writing might someday be more than a simple hobby.
While the formative experiences that make us love the written word often happen well before we even think about applying for colleges, it’s often the work we do once we actually get here that influences where we’re going to take our writing in our adult lives.
During my time at UT, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a single opportunity to learn where my writing could take me. I studied both journalism and creative writing. I held jobs at the Independent Collegian, the Writing Center, the marketing department. I was as active as possible in the on-campus writing community: I was a board member for the student writing organization and planned peer workshops every other week; I wrote a screenplay for the broadcasting club, UTTV; I submitted to The Mill every semester and attended all of the lit mag readings.
I took all of those experiences with me five years ago when I moved to the Philadelphia area to begin graduate studies in publishing.
Today, I wear many hats as a writer and editor. Day to day, I’m an editorial assistant working with three acquisitions editors at a medical textbook publisher. I edit and write for the entertainment website Girls in Capes, which examines intersectional representation in entertainment. I’m also a freelance writer, speaker, and publicist focusing on topics that include science fiction and fantasy, diversity in publishing, and gender representation in teen media, with work on the Portalist and the Mary Sue.
My love of books and my passion for the written word has had a major impact on my personal and professional development, and the diverse topics of study I chose at UT carried into the work I completed as a graduate student and the field of specialty I eventually chose.
The first course that had a major impact on me was Doctor Compora’s Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature course. [And as Doctor Compora mentioned earlier, I was still a junior in high school at the time.]
In that class, we studied golden age stories and other classics — The Hobbit, Dune, the work of authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen King. The course familiarized me with classics referenced across the field, which are still pretty widely discussed today.
At the time, I wondered why it seemed no female authors were counted among the classic sci-fi canon, and I assumed women had been kept out of the genre. I was wrong, sort of, but more on that later.
During my second year at UT, I decided I wanted to complete Honors Thesis to help me prepare for the rigors of grad school. [I admit, I also kind of did it because I thought it would look good on my grad school application.] I wasn’t sure what I wanted to complete my thesis on, but I knew I was interested in literature written by people like me — authors who are a part of the Asian diaspora.
Up to that point, I was unfamiliar with literature by diaspora authors. I think in our initial meeting, I might have told Dr. Gregory that I wanted to do my thesis on “an Asian writer.”
But expressing this straightforward request led to a very important part of my education: working with Dr. Sarkar, who focuses in postcolonial lit.
Dr. Sarkar had me read several books before choosing one for my thesis, which pushed me way beyond the boundaries of any lit class I’d ever taken. For the first time, I saw the experiences and issues faced by people like me, people like my father, treated with the same seriousness and respect as the experiences and issues faced by others.
It was eye-opening, and for a nineteen-year-old, it was transformative.
My thesis on David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly examined the Vietnam War through a lens intersecting race and gender.
There was no way I could have known this at the time, but the concepts I explored through my thesis with Dr. Sarkar as my adviser along with the love I had for science fiction and fantasy literature supported and legitimized by Dr. Compora had a huge impact on the work I did as a graduate student.
During my first semester studying publishing at Rosemont, we were assigned to propose a magazine that could fill a gap in the market, and my proposal for a sci-fi-focused entertainment magazine focusing on the intersection of gender and race eventually became the website Girls in Capes.
I mentioned GiC earlier, but now would be a good place to elaborate. We’re a geeky entertainment site that focuses on gender and race representation in science fiction and fantasy with topics in several sections: Books, TV & Film, Comics & Graphic Novels, Gaming, Anime & Manga, and Subculture.
Over the past four and a half years, GiC has expanded to take up most of my life. I work with one editor and around 15 staff writers, and the content we cover ranges broadly, with every writer bringing a different expertise and perspective.
Remember when I said I’d assumed women had been kept out of science fiction and fantasy as a field? During graduate studies, I learned how untrue this was. Women have always bee part of science fiction and fantasy as writers and as fans. Mary Shelley is really the mother of science fiction, starting with Frankenstein. Some women, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, were more overlooked early on in their careers, while others wrote under masculine pen names, like James Tiptree.
Due in part to that, I crafted a mission for Girls in Capes: we strive to review and uplift work by creators who may be otherwise overlooked, and we encourage our readers to purchase, read, and otherwise support the work of marginalized creators.
It took 19 years for me to see someone like myself in a serious work of literature. I work to make sure that future kids don’t have to wait that long.
[Note: I had to pause here for a moment.]
While grad school really helped me to figure out how to channel my nebulous concepts into concrete aspects of my personality, I know that my undergrad experience helped those nebulous concepts to form in the first place.
Eventually, the specialization in publishing that I chose — guess what? Adult science fiction with post-colonial themes.
This often takes the form of space operas, like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice or Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion. It’s also helping shape the growing number of titles in alternate history: Everfair, River of Teeth, Buffalo Soldier.
Would this area have appealed to me without the work I did at UT? Perhaps. Eventually. But looking back at my work, I can clearly see the impact from the studies I completed during my time here.
When I started off as an undergrad hoping to work in writing and editing, I was incredibly intimidated.
I’m going to tell you all a secret that I don’t like people to know: when I started college, I was nobody. I knew almost nothing about publishing. I had no connections, even after I graduated. I came from a lower middle-class family, third-generation Toledoan on one side and first-generation American on the other. I’d thought everything was about knowing people, having the right family, the right connections. Sometimes, people told me that to my face, and that because I had none of those things, I wouldn’t be able to succeed.
But five years later, I know better than that.
And what I’ve learned is that if you want to write, if you want to edit, there are countless opportunities for you, but only if you go and find them.
There’s a lot of negativity around the English major, around journalism, around writing. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an English major is useless. Publishing is a dying industry — everything’s digital now. Writers are always broke, starving artists. My personal favorite, actually, was one I heard right before I left for grad school: you’re never going to get a job in publishing because you didn’t go to an Ivy League school.
How many of you have heard one of those, or some variation on them?
If you’ve shared your interest in writing with family or friends, it may be something you’ve heard before. I’ve had well-meaning acquaintances and not-so-well-meaning pros tell me those things, too.
But — and this is purely coming from personal experience — that is absolutely not true.
Writing and editing are skills used in almost every industry, and strong writing skills are always valued. The medical field will always need textbooks and people to edit them. Pharmaceutical companies and engineers will always need technical manuals and people who can write them. My generation, the millennials, read more fiction and trade nonfiction than any other generation, and last year, 75% of Americans read at least one book. Three out of every four people.
The world will always need writing and editing as skills. If you’re here now, not only have you already begun the process of developing those skills — you’ve also done the next important step: seeking out opportunities to apply them.
How many here are interested in writing or editing as a career?
The best advice I can give to anyone looking for a career in writing and editing is to seek out experiences. Write for the Collegian. Write for blogs. And I don’t mean keeping a Tumblr where you word-vom all your opinions. Create or submit to blogs about the things you love.
Maybe what you love is bodybuilding, or maybe it’s dressing fashionably on a budget. We’ve all been there, right? Maybe you love home gardening or follow sneaker releases or indie bands or food trends.
Whatever it is, learn how to write for it. Treat it as a job. For the first year of GiC, I never got paid, but I developed my skills in writing and editing specifically for the internet. The more you develop your skills, the more opportunities you’ll receive.
In the past five years, I’ve had opportunities I never would have dreamed of before. I’ve interviewed award-winning authors, traveled to cities I’ve never been to before. This year, I was paid to write about Star Wars and cat names. I’ve taught workshops and presented to middle and high school kids. I had an internship with a literary agent who represented award-winning children’s books.
And those opportunities have all stemmed from learning everything I could learn, taking every chance I saw, and seeking out that tenth application even when the first nine got rejected.
The world is full of opportunities, and it’s up to you to pursue them.
Once again, congratulations to all of this year’s Shapiro winners and awardees. I wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors.