Creative conundrum 

Big Sky literary advisor leaves big shoes to fill at Aerie

It takes a gentle but firm hand to coax young authors into turning their fledgling feelings into a worthy piece of writing. Billie Loewen, a writer who graduated from Big Sky High School in 2008, says she's grateful for creative writing teacher Lorilee Evans-Lynn's patience with a teenage obsession.

"I remember being very passionate about this one young man I went to church with," Loewen says. "About the 10th time I had written about this boy, who I had maybe held hands with once, Lorilee was like, 'Okay, let's dig deeper. You have to dig deeper than this poor young man who continues to be berated in your poems.'"

Evans-Lynn has been guiding young talent for 29 years as an American studies and English teacher at Big Sky High School—much of it in the same three rooms, she says. For many of those years, she's advised the annual Aerie Big Sky literary journal and Aerie International, one of a handful of high school international literary magazines in the world.

"Having a creative writing class at all is kind of rare," says Evans-Lynn. "And having a literary magazine class is really rare, and we have two."

As Evans-Lynn prepares to retire this spring and Aerie Big Sky celebrates its 34th anniversary, she says she's concerned about the future of the literary magazine program at Big Sky—and not for reasons you might expect.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Big Sky High teacher Lorilee Evans-Lynn, left, advises students like senior Robby Pazmino for the school’s two award-winning literary magazines. As Evans-Lynn prepares to retire, she’s worried about future students staying interested in the program.

For Aerie Big Sky, local students submit and edit one another's poetry, short prose, creative nonfiction, photography and art. The publication has won several National Council of Teachers of English Highest Award rankings. The awards inspired Evans-Lynn to take on a challenge, and so she asked students to help her develop Aerie International, which launched in 2008, and prints submissions from students around the globe. (Evans-Lynn's grant applications were denied, she says, so fundraisers and private donations—including her own cash—support the magazine's annual $10,000 budget.) A flip through recent issues reveals sophisticated, well-curated collections with often astonishing depth, maturity and multicultural perspective. In the 2013 Aerie Big Sky, a girl writes about her Hmong family's traditional New Year celebrations in one prose piece. In a poem, a boy contemplates a tough, loving but alcoholic father-figure.

Hatton Littman, director of technology and communication at Missoula County Public Schools, is a published poet herself. She says she was "blown away" by the pieces in Aerie. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is incredible,'" she says. "... I wasn't just reading this because it's an example of student work."

It's learning to be edited—and learning to edit others—which often makes the difference. Evans-Lynne admits there's sometimes "tension" when she pushes a teen to do multiple revisions. She credits her time in grad school at the University of Montana, where she studied poetry under Richard Hugo, for her thorough approach, saying he "held my feet to the fire."

As Evans-Lynn gets ready for Aerie's big fundraiser gala at the Dana Gallery on April 17, she says she's not sure who will take her place at Big Sky. That decision won't be made until incoming principal Natalie Jaeger arrives and the budget is finalized in August, according to Littman at MCPS. Littman says it's too soon to know how Evans-Lynn's shoes will be filled, but the administration certainly supports Aerie's mission.

What worries Evans-Lynn the most is the decreasing amount of students willing to sign on for the work. This year, Aerie International has six students, one of her smallest classes ever, and the magazine is getting fewer submissions. She chalks it up to the ever-increasing student workload. She believes modern education emphasizes academic essay writing and electives that are easy for institutions to recognize on transcripts, like music and sports. As Evans-Lynn has seen with her own college-age sons, the cost of higher education discourages teens from careers that don't seem lucrative. Evans-Lynn says those pressures don't leave much room for the commitment of creative writing. As the 2014 issues of Aerie, which come out in summer, approach deadline, her students are coming in before school, during lunch and after class to tackle all of the editing and layout work.

Evans-Lynn believes the process of creative writing, which includes taking criticism and giving it, has benefits that are more far-reaching than just the ability to put a poem into the right meter. Former student Loewen, who went on to graduate from the UM journalism program, says she learned time management and the tools for collegiate writing at Aerie. She now works as a writer for a nonprofit in Oregon, and still keeps Aerie issues on her bookshelf. "It takes a rare type of high school teacher to make sure that kind of program stays funded and operational, as [Evans-Lynn] has. It would really be a loss."

Evans-Lynn says she'll stick around to offer advice to whoever advises future issues of Aerie, and ultimately, she's optimistic. "I think there will always be those kids who are writing in journals and hiding them under their mattresses," she says.

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