By Felipe Silveira
Ilene Miele teaches in UCSB’s Writing program, and is the founding editor of Starting Lines, an outlet that for the past two decades has allowed students to go through the professional publication process early on in their careers.
After attending Hofstra University and a short stint teaching at Cal State Northridge, Miele settled in Santa Barbara and made an immediate impact. She led the charge to redefine how UCSB writing students learn by emphasizing learning from other students.
Since 2002, Miele and her editing team have been collecting outstanding student works from writing composition classes known as Writing 1, 2 and Linguistics 12. Each piece goes through a professional publication process, and then more than 20 professors use the published compilation as a textbook for the next year’s classes. This helps expose the student authors to a larger audience, and gives the reader examples of exceptional college-level writing.
Miele recently sat down for an interview to discuss her motivation for launching Starting Lines and how it has impacted the lives of hundreds of students and alumni.
Q. Starting Lines has been around for about 16 years now, and you’ve been with it every step of the way. How have you seen the textbook grow, and where would you like to see it go from here?
A. The first-ever edition of Starting Lines was right at a 100 pages maximum, because that was the most pages that would fit under a stapler at the time. It was intended only for the Writing 1 class. There are some images within the edition but no actual photos. After a few years, we were able to get some design and editing interns involved in the process and upped the quality and aesthetic of the book overall. Then in 2007 came the collaboration with the Linguistics program and the book added the element of international flavor and new contributions to existing ideas. We were making about 500 books per year, but increase in demand motivated us start working with a professional publication company. There’s been some push to make future editions more digital, but I probably won’t let it happen completely as long as I have a say. There’s something about your grandma being able to pick it up and read it that sits well with me.
Q. What are some of the benefits of using a compilation of student work as teaching material instead of a traditional textbook?
A. Traditional writing textbooks are usually pretty effective in demonstrating effective writing strategies, but they can be intimidating. If you stack up a student’s work against that of someone who’s been doing it as a career, then of course the student is going to feel under par. Using past student works makes current students think, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and they write more confidently. It also helps the writing feel more substantial. Written work feels truly real when it is exposed to a greater audience, and publishing student work creates the opportunity for that to happen.
Q. Your website notes the number of submissions has increased over time and will continue to trend in that direction. About how many submissions are you receiving, and how many of these submissions will make it into the published edition?
A. Chris Dean (co-editor of Starting Lines) and I are always working with the department to promote Starting Lines more and more, and it’s shown in recent years. We receive about 100-200 submissions each, bringing the total to as many as 400. About 40-50 of those will get published in the final copy.
Q. Wow, that’s a ton of submissions to go through. What are some characteristics that you look for when reading all those submissions that will help a piece stand out from the rest?
A. Relatability, good narrative structure, and an interesting voice are general good writing qualities we look for right away. There’s definitely some overlap since students are using similar prompts, so something unusual or timely stands out. We also look for stories that can be used as teaching tools. Students often feel like they weren’t sprinkled with the ‘magic writing fairy dust,’ and they’re just destined for average writing. I feel like the Wizard of Oz sometimes, convincing students that high quality writing has been inside them all along, it’s just untapped.
Q. In your opinion, what are some of the benefits, both personal and professional, of young writers going through the publication and editing process and getting their voice out to the rest of the student population as early as age 18 or 19?
A. It helps them take themselves and their writing more seriously. In most academic contexts, students are writing to the teacher and the teacher alone. Starting Lines authors are writing to hundreds of people, which helps then learn to write within a bigger context. They pay more attention to their words, work hand in hand with editors, and accomplishing the feat of getting published definitely leads to some internal validation. We’ve had a number of students ask for permission to use their published work when applying to graduate school, medical school, etc. because admissions at any institution are going to take publication very seriously.
Q. Are there any submissions, student interactions, or general moments associated with Starting Lines that you remember quite fondly?
A. The publication party every year is always bound to create some good memories. Authors, faculty, and fans will come for food, readings and awards, and it’s bound to be a good time. The stories than I remember the most vividly are always the ones that deal with people’s hardships. We’ve had students write about things like family tragedy, or the difficulty of coming out to their parents for the first time. The therapeutic aspect of those pieces, and how personal and meaningful they end up being, make their message linger for a long time.
Q. Lastly, what advice would you give an aspiring writer considering a submission to Starting Lines or trying to published early on in their writing career?
A. Just keep writing. Nothing is going to happen unless your butt is in the seat and you’re intrinsically motivated to get it done. And be persistent. If you get focused on publication and people pleasing, you’ll lose sight of what you’re writing for. Look for other forms of satisfaction along the way, as simple as your friend praising your first draft or your class clapping after a read aloud. There are so many reasons to write outside of professional affirmation, and finding what works for you will lead to your most passionate work.
Felipe Silveira is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Professional Writing. He wrote this for the Writing for Web and Social Media course in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.
In the following video from the Fall 2018 Starting Lines reading, four student writers present their work published in the anthology’s 18th edition.