By Mike Goldin '14
Low lying and flat, Wood River Junction is said to be the coldest locale in Rhode Island; the site of a train disaster in 1873 which killed 15 and a nuclear accident in 1964 which killed one, it is now home to Chariho High School, where former BFP Features Editor Emma del Valle ‘13 was once a student. A “helpless nerd,” Emma came to Bennington with aspirations to write books.
During her year’s tenure on the Free Press’ editorial staff, Emma was pivotal in inspiring change in the organization’s standards for quality in writing. She helped to pioneer the paper’s Deputy Editor program, and is responsible for having recruited more than half of the Free Press’ present editorial staff. Her biting wit was a memorable presence in the paper’s Features section, which she edited; traditionally a rather amorphous collection of content, Emma tuned what had been best in it and re-defined it with long form, investigative storytelling which had been absent in the paper prior. Ultimately, Emma relinquished the section to history by helping to re-imagine it as Campus Life.
A gifted writer and a disciplined editor, Emma was perhaps the finest steward to yet preside over the Free Press’ features writing, and in that respect merits her unique place in history as the section’s final steward as well.
The transcript below has been edited and condensed for legibility.
MG: Do you remember how you learned to read?
EDV: I learned to read as a child—which I think a lot of children do. I think a lot of children learn how to read for various reasons, most of them are that you need to read to be an active participant in society. And also you need to read when you have no friends and you like books a lot, because books are friends who don’t mind that you wear a Lord of the Rings ring on a chain when you’re in highschool—as a necklace. So, I read a lot. That’s how I learned how to read.
MG: Did you ever play any sports in your childhood?
EDV: I did Karate for a year or something. I was a green belt with a black stripe, which I’m sure does not have a name in traditional Japanese Karate—I hope Karate is Japanese, I think that’s what it is. I hated it. It was really embarrassing. My highschool boyfriend also did Karate. He wasn’t really my boyfriend until years later—at the time we were in middle school. We had to do all these takedown positions that were really awkward and involved physically. You had to hold people’s legs and stuff—it was just really embarrassing. I was very physically embarrassed. I didn’t like that you had to take your shoes off—it always smelled like feet in the dojo. I knew I would never be able to save myself in a situation with my Karate; I asked to stop going and my parents eventually let me stop going. That was the extent of the sports that I did.
MG: Can you do an impression of your highschool self?
EDV: I probably stand—my posture is probably just as bad [now]. I think you would probably only know if you talked to me in highschool what a helpless nerd I was. ‘Have you seen the new Lord of the Rings movie? I like Harry Potter.’
MG: When you came to Bennington, did you know you wanted to study literature?
EDV: Yeah. I had this idea that I would write books, which obviously is not what’s happening right now. I think that nobody really understands how many jobs there are in the world until they’ve become an adult, because you only know the prominent jobs—firefighter, people [who] write books, actors and actresses—you don’t know what a key grip is; you don’t know what a publishing house is. I’m more interested now in the production side: he production of somebody else’s work, the involvement in creating a magazine or newspaper or something like that.
MG: In what ways or dimensions are you a bad literature student? What do you not like, or are not good at that you should be?
EDV: I think my weaknesses—I’ve started to think of books as work, or involved in schoolwork. So I don’t read a lot independently anymore, but that’s mostly because you don’t have a lot of free time to do leisure activities that are also intellectually edifying when you’re in school. When you have free time you want to watch Arrested Development and eat a Snickers bar and pick your nose for eight hours. You want to get high, essentially. You don’t want to read Game of Thrones.
MG: How did you get involved with the Bennington Free Press?
EDV: I had always liked the BFP; I had always thought the BFP was really funny. I was reading the BFP at a time when all the people who worked on the BFP staff were older Kilpat kids, so I thought it was really cool and—it was kind of a fuck around, funny thing that I wanted to be involved in. But I also was interested in writing for it, and I’d written for it before a couple of times—I don’t know why, somebody told me to do it as a joke—and I did it as a joke, and my article was jokes. But then I applied [for an editorial position] and realized that it was a very serious enterprise—over time. I think during my interview I said something like ‘oh, I don’t know what would be in my section, just, like, fuck around stuff, I guess.’ I would have the fuck around fun section. And obviously Features has become more various than that.
MG: As Features becomes “Campus Life”—this new section—what should that section be, that would do the most good for the College community?
EDV: Features now contains actual feature stories that correspond to the definition of a feature story in any other publication. Serious, investigative, long form pieces. But it also has food reviews with Jan, and book club, and more cultural, societal [content] in the context of Bennington.
It becoming Campus Life and having the features part taken out makes it more of a record of culture at Bennington that could be referred to later. We have those issues of Commons, and though things are not sharply delineated into sections there, you can see from the articles that discuss Campus Life, you can see what Campus Life was like back then. And it helps people have a sense of community. It’s not the most serious part of the newspaper by any means, but it’s also the part that people are probably going to read first because it’s easy and its accessible and enjoyable. It’s reaffirming to have a record of your social life, in a sense.
MG: What does it take to be a good editor, both in terms of reading people’s work, and helping them make it better?
EDV: When you’re editing someone else’s work, or you’re an editor of a section in which you’re in charge of the work of several other people, the best thing to be able to do is to understand what people are trying to say if they’re not saying it correctly. And that’s true of editing anybody’s work. Taking it at face value when you just read the words on the page and think about what better way there is to say things—if there is an aspect that’s not being discussed that’s important to the thrust of the article, that should be addressed, and you talk to your writer about that.
Also knowing how to preserve a person’s style when you’re editing, and identifying what trademark’s there are in that person’s work over time; you become familiar with your writers and the way that they write. Sometimes they punctuate differently, and its important to preserve that punctuation without making it seem like an aberration in the general body of the paper. Essentially, learning to identify the idiosyncrasies of your writer’s work and preserving them without making it seem incongruous with the rest of the paper, and also making sure that they’re saying what they need to say.
MG: How do you decide on what mix of things to curate in a section? What’s a good mix and what’s too much?
EDV: A lot of the time, when you’re deciding what to include and what to include and put in each paper, you have your benchmarks that you know you’re always going to have—repeat columns. For me it was always food and sex because I had Eddie writing sex advice and I had Jan writing food reviews. So you have posts that are always. Then just trying not to commission articles that are on the exact same things; not so much trying to get a wide variety of things consciously, but trying to avoid redundancy seems to breed the most variety.
MG: What would you tell a very eager freshman who wants to be a good writer, who wants to write for the BFP—what really impresses you in writing and in writers?
EDV: What impresses me in writing or the work of writers is how they develop a personal style of writing that you could identify if their names were not attached. Even when you’re reading the writing of somebody whose work you’ve never read before, the ability that people have to express things in ways that you had not thought to express them; even simple things, jokes mostly are always impressive to me, or expressing something in a way that’s funny is always exciting to see in writers.
With Jan, I was always excited to see what he would write because he always has a way of phrasing things in an unexpected way. A lot of writers for the BFP now—and I know that there are a lot of incoming writers who do this—have a very good sense of words, and an instinct for being surprising with them.
What would I tell an eager freshman about the BFP? I’m not sure... Have I ever seen an eager freshman? I’d tell them to go to the meetings, maybe talk to me afterwards.
MG: Could you do an impression of your current self? A caricature of an impression?
EDV: What would have to go into it—I’d have to be smoking a cigarette, I’d have to be a little drunk or haven’t slept in a couple—oh, I know; a really good one would be something really foul and talking about how little or too much I’ve slept recently, so ‘oh my fucking god, I just woke up from a 17 hour nap, but before that—before that—I haven’t slept in two weeks! So I think that I deserve a drink.’
MG: Could you do an impression of your 40 year old self? Either as you hope to be, or as you think you will be.
EDV: ‘I haven’t slept in four years, and I just woke up from a 30 day nap—I think I deserve a drink.’
MG: Is there anything else you want to tell the future?
EDV: For BFP writers, or people interested in the BFP, and people who are interested in supporting the BFP and working to make it survive, I hope it becomes one of the most important avenues for the student voice at this school. It’s going to be necessary for students to continue to create their own culture and continue to be aware of their own common agendas here as changes take place.
The school will probably teeter on the verge of nonexistence again, and there being an outlet for students to talk about things in a way that’s—it’s not Facebook and it’s not whatever the next thing after Facebook is—it’s controlled and it’s professional and it’s respectable and it has the potential to be taken seriously. I think that’s definitely what the school needs, so people should be involved in that.