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A Place of Belonging for All: More Than A Decade of The Penmen Review

A laptop on a table in front of a window, with the browser open to The Penmen Review website.

Every story starts with a new idea.

In the fall of 2012, staff members at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) had one. They saw an opportunity to create a unique space for all writers — from successful authors to students who’d never been published. What resulted was The Penmen Review: an online journal designed specifically for creative writers. Its purpose? To provide practical resources. To feature both new and notable authors for spotlight interviews. And, most importantly, to house “The Review,” a place where writers of all calibers could submit their work for publication.

This year marks over a decade of The Penmen Review. And for many in the SNHU writing community, Penmen means a lot.

The Origin Story

When senior content director Pamme Boutselis '15 '17G learned that a project was in the works to draw attention to SNHU’s creative writing programs, she was immediately interested. She thought, too, that maybe this project could be something even bigger. Rather than guessing what students might be looking for in a website like this, she asked them directly in a survey — and their answers played a crucial part in the creation of The Penmen Review.

Pamme Boutselis with the text Pamme Boutselis

“We deliberately chose to create an online journal for creative writers to encourage both novice and notable writers to submit their work,” said Boutselis. “There was an interest in learning from established writers as well, which is why the Spotlight section was developed with a focus on interviews with writers and editors to find out more about their journeys to publication.”

A couple of months later, The Penmen Review was live — and when she reflects on the journal’s early days, Boutselis recalls energy and excitement.

“For me, the biggest thrill was whenever I could connect with a writer — especially one of our students — to let them know the editorial board had chosen their work to be published,” she said. “How wonderful to be part of that communication and experience their delight.”

After Penmen’s first year, an anthology featuring the 100 top-read pieces was published. The buzz was only growing, and a need arose for additional hands to assist. Who better to support this project, thought Boutselis, than SNHU students?

From Student Workers to Creative Professionals

Rebecca Blanchette with the text Rebecca BlanchetteFor Rebecca Blanchette ’18 ’22G, the time she spent supporting The Penmen Review as a student worker was what she described as “unforgettable.” As a student on SNHU's Manchester, New Hampshire campus, her role involved communicating with hundreds of writers, and she, like Boutselis, said what felt particularly special was telling someone they’d be published.

“I got to celebrate with many who had their work selected for publication — some for the first time ever,” she said.

After graduating with her Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Communication in 2018, she was hired as an editorial coordinator. She went on to earn her Master of Arts (MA) in English and Creative Writing with a concentration in Nonfiction in 2022, and now works as a senior content writer at SNHU. Blanchette feels her work with Penmen was, in many ways, the foundation for her professional journey.

Mars Girolimon with the text Mars GirolimonFor Mars Girolimon ’21 ’23G, the opportunity to work on Penmen arose when they were searching for experiential learning during their graduate program at SNHU. They began as an intern and were later brought on board as a student worker.

When reflecting on their time with The Penmen Review, Girolimon said they left with invaluable skills they use daily — especially in their current role as a part-time associate content writer at the university. They write outside of work, too, and have been published in a number of literary journals. Most recently, they were long-listed for The First Pages Prize.

All of this, said Girolimon, wouldn’t be possible without Penmen.

“My experience with The Penmen Review helped me gain confidence in the process of submitting my work and helped me realize that rejection can be a step on the way to acceptance,” they said. “I’m doing what I love, and my experience as an intern and student worker played a big part in getting me here.”

Alexa Gustavsen with the text Alexa GustavsenLike Girolimon and Blanchette, Alexa Gustavsen ’20’s experience as a student worker supporting The Penmen Review provided her with practical skills she uses in her work even now.

“Whether it was communicating with editorial board members or submitters, I learned how to communicate more professionally, which has been highly beneficial in my career,” she said.

Since graduating with her BA in English and Creative Writing in 2020, Gustavsen has worked as an associate content writer and, most recently, as a content facilitator at SNHU. She's currently pursuing her Master of Science (MS) in Marketing, and feels her work with Penmen was her entry point into the professional world.

"I'm working in a dream job, with a dream team, and it really all started with The Penmen Review,” she said.

Nicholas Patterson with the text Nicholas PattersonNicholas Patterson ’22 found his start as a student worker for The Penmen Review, too. When he reflects on what this work provided him, one lesson, among others, was the confidence to manage a number of moving parts at once.

“I had practice with organization and prioritization while creating and maintaining a content schedule for The Penmen Review stories,” he said. “I grew to love it.”

Patterson also credits Penmen for being a place where he made lasting connections, both personal and professional. Near the end of his time earning a BA in English and Creative Writing, he began working as an associate content writer at SNHU, and he's currently pursuing his Master of Fine Arts (MFA).

With a team comprised of former student workers who focused on The Penmen Review and other content writing needs, Boutselis said, "I'm incredibly proud of them and grateful for their talent and dedication."

Ashleigh Worley with the text Ashleigh WorleyThe team continues to bring on student workers to assist with day-to-day management of The Penmen Review and its editorial board, such as Ashleigh Worley '22, who is earning her MFA online at SNHU. Worley said that her work with Penmen helped her break out of her comfort zone and challenge herself in new ways. She’s also loved spreading the word about Penmen in her MFA courses.

“We recently shared resources for publication with our peers, and I was so excited to be able to direct them toward The Penmen Review,” she said. “I hope they’ll end up submitting their writing and having it published!”

Somewhere for Beginners – and Bestsellers, Too

For many SNHU students, including Jordan Fondren Johnson, The Penmen Review is the first place they were published. Fondren Johnson, who writes under the pen name EJ Fawn, had her piece, "My Dear Friend," accepted to Penmen in June of this year.

Jordan Fondren Johnson with the text Jordan Fondren Johnson“I was ecstatic to find out I'd been chosen, and to be published three months before my 21st birthday,” she said.

Fondren Johnson is a testament to the fact that good writers come from an array of disciplines; while she does have a minor in creative writing, she’s currently pursuing her BA in Game Art and Development at SNHU and is on track to graduate in December. When she reflects on what she wants to write next, her answer comes easily.

“In the future, I would love to publish allegorical books that teach fundamental lessons about morals and the consequences of ill-natured behavior,” she said.

For other students, like Diane Walters ’18G, submitting her writing for publication led her somewhere she didn’t expect. She had her piece, "Thanksgiving," published in The Penmen Review and worked on her portfolio. Then, after graduating from SNHU with her MA in English and Creative Writing at age 62, she ventured into the world of editing.

“I was over the moon when I was published in The Penmen Review,” she said. "Now, I edit dissertations, journal articles, essays and SOPs (standard operating procedures)."

Walters also gained valuable editing experience while serving on The Penmen Review’s editorial board. Her most fulfilling moments were those she shared with new writers.

“There is so much talent out there, so many quality writers,” she said. “I always tried to support them.”

And while The Penmen Review is the first place many writers are published, it’s not everyone’s first go around. In fact, Penmen boasts some big names within its pages. A few notable poets published through the years include:

Michael C. Keith with the text Michael C. KeithMichael C. Keith, a successful memoirist and short story writer with many published collections to his credit, has also published pieces with Penmen. He appreciates, in particular, Penmen’s goal of being a space for aspiring writers. When asked about his own writing advice, Keith said it boils down to determination.

“Just keep at it. Don't let rejections get you down; they are part of the writer's experience,” he said. “If your passion is to publish, it will happen.”

Other well-known writers, like Jodi Picoult, Chevy Stevens, Wiley Cash, as well as publishing experts and other professionals in the field, have been interviewed for The Penmen Review's Spotlight section.

SNHU’s Word for Word and Wireside Chats — live, recorded interview series specifically geared toward students — have also featured a variety of writers, including Joan F. Smith and Amy Butcher, who are both adjunct faculty at the university.

Penmen’s Influence: The Fall Fiction Contest

The Penmen Review’s reach has continued to extend over the years, and has inspired projects aimed particularly at students and aspiring writers. One such project is SNHU’s annual Fall Fiction Contest.

The contest, a highly-anticipated event since its inception in 2015, calls for any writer in the continental U.S. to submit an original work of fiction of 1,500 words or less. Each year, hundreds of submissions pour in, and winners have their work published in The Penmen Review, receive scholarships and get prizes sent their way.

As a sophomore on campus, Blanchette worked on the Fall Fiction Contest during its first year, and feels proud of how it has evolved over time. “It’s become an annual event writers ask about,” she said. “Over the last handful of years, finalists have been invited to read their short stories during a special Word for Word event. It’s such a privilege to support the writers.”

Jacob Powers with the text Jacob PowersJacob Powers, an associate dean of creative writing (BA and MA) at SNHU, shares Blanchette's sentiment. His work with The Penmen Review began in 2018, and included supporting the Fall Fiction Contest. He, too, finds the Word for Word opportunity to be a significant element of the event.

“I look forward to it every year,” he said. “The audience gets to hear each finalist read their story. It’s a great opportunity for students to ask writers about their craft, process and experiences submitting work to literary journals.”

Ben Jackson with the text Ben JacksonBen Jackson ’20 was the 2019 Fall Fiction Contest winner. As an experienced nonfiction writer, putting a piece of fiction into the world was a first for him. Winning the contest and having his short story, "Love in the Cheap Seats," published in The Penmen Review encouraged him to continue experimenting with other genres of writing.

“It reminded me that I am in fact good enough to do this, that people will read and appreciate my work, and that I am contributing something of artistic value to the world,” he said. “That's such a valuable experience and reminder to have.”

Since his big win, Jackson successfully completed his BA in English and Creative Writing at SNHU and, more recently, went on to earn his MFA from Emerson College. And, he’s been published in some noteworthy places, from The Boston Globe to Variety.

Michael Cabrera with the text Michael CabreraMichael Cabrera — also a BA in English and Creative Writing student at SNHU — placed third in the 2022 Fall Fiction Contest with his short story, "Michael Row." Though he'd already published a novel by the time the contest took place, he saw value in an additional opportunity to get his work into the world.

"I feel that I have something to say through my writing and publishing," he said. "The Penmen Review made me feel that there were people out there willing to listen."

Getting Published in Penmen: The WRITE Challenge

Another project in Penmen’s sphere of influence is the WRITE Challenge, an experiential learning project for liberal arts students at SNHU. The project, which began in the spring of 2020, gives participants the opportunity to collaborate on a resource article for potential publication in The Penmen Review.

Bonnie Fox with the text Bonnie FoxBonnie Fox, an English adjunct faculty member and academic partner for the university, is a leader of the WRITE Challenge. Her role is to support teams through each step of the process, and she’s seen firsthand the skills students walk away with.

“The Challenge gives students the opportunity to go through the process of pitching a freelance topic, developing and revising an article that meets the publication’s requirements, and (for the winning team) experiencing the editing process prior to publication,” she said.

Kelly Shire with the text Kelly ShireSince the project’s inception in 2020, four articles have been published in the journal. Topics have ranged from building a blog audience to starting a writing career altogether. This year’s winners researched and wrote about the latter, and according to MFA student Kelly Shire, the challenge presented an opportunity to work as a team and create something meaningful.

“I loved the teamwork aspect the most,” she said. “I am a solitary writer by nature, and having the opportunity to write an article with four other students taught me valuable lessons in collaboration.”

Shire, who writes under the pen name Kelly Washington, has been a professional writer for more than a decade. Much of her work is inspired by her military experience as an Army veteran, and her latest novel publishes this fall.

Shire’s teammate, April Eilerman, is pursuing her BA in English and Creative Writing. Eilerman shares Shire’s gratitude for working as a team, and said that although she took on a formal leadership role for the challenge, she feels each of her team members were leaders, too. The experience she gained through the challenge even pushed her to pursue publishing her work — and to take on a new challenge at SNHU.

“It built my courage and self-esteem,” she said. “I had enough nerve to self-nominate for a cabinet position in the Creative Writing Review Club. I won, and if it wasn’t for the WRITE Challenge, that would never be.”

Amber Pritchard with the text Amber PritchardWhen reflecting back on her decision to take part in this experience, Amber Pritchard — who is on track to complete her BA in English and Creative Writing this fall — remembers feeling like a door was opening for her. And like Eilerman, winning gave her the nudge to continue putting herself out there as a writer.

Brooke Gebhardt with the text Brooke Gebhardt

“Getting published in The Penmen Review felt like pushing the reset button on my writing career, and it’s encouraged me since,” she said. “I’ve got several pieces in submission right now.”

Brooke Gebhardt, who is also studying English and Creative Writing, shared Pritchard’s enthusiasm about the WRITE Challenge. For her, it was extra special — a first in her career as a writer.

“This article was my first published work. I’m so proud of it, and of my team, for all of our hard work,” she said. “Since then, I have published a poem...'The Epiphany,' also with The Penmen Review.”

The Next Chapter

Now, more than 10 years since its first publication, those who work closely with The Penmen Review celebrate what it’s been for so many — and share their hopes for what it continues to become. Paul Witcover, an associate dean of liberal arts, believes Penmen will continue to expand its reach.

Paul Witcover with the text Paul Witcover“My goal is to continue collaborating with my colleagues to make the journal an even more vibrant and vital part of SNHU’s creative community,” he said.

Powers, who works closely with Witcover, agrees — and in his perspective, growth could look like a number of things.

“Paul and I want to continue to promote the journal as a place of belonging for all creative writers,” he said. “In the future, we hope to explore other mediums, like photography, art and critical essays. And we hope to spotlight articles from our archives — especially writers who have since published more work.”

Boutselis is thrilled with the contributions of folks like Witcover and Powers to The Penmen Review in recent years, and hopes to see a continued focus on uplifting students and their work.

“Our academic team has become further involved with the editorial direction, and we couldn’t be happier to embrace their ideas and excitement for the next phase,” Boutselis said. “I hope we always have opportunities for our students to be involved.”

Chris Sullivan with the text Chris SullivanMore than anything, those who feel closely connected to The Penmen Review care about giving writers of all experience levels a voice, an opportunity, a start. SNHU English adjunct faculty member Chris Sullivan, a dedicated member of Penmen’s editorial review board since its inception, is passionate about the mission of the journal — and wants to keep it at the forefront.

“Anyone who writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoirs, screenplays, short stories and essays are welcome to submit their pieces for consideration,” he said.

And to anyone hesitating to put themselves out there creatively, Sullivan said not to.

“Be fearless!” he said. “Be bold! Write on!”

Discover more about SNHU's creative writing degree: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

Abigail Mark ’23G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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