When I drove west from the Shenandoah Valley to Manhattan, Kansas for the first time, I remember stopping to pump gas on the West Virginia Turnpike at the base of a mountain that felt so much larger and more dramatic than the misty blue ones I had left behind. Just across the road, the landscape rose sharply, a tapestry of late summer hardwoods, sprinkled darker green as hemlock and cedar appeared higher up the ridgeline. This mountain seemed to cut into the sky, casting shade and the damp scent of the forest across the blacktop where I stood. It seemed like I was crossing some forbidden line in moving out of that shadow, and the landscape that greeted me as the Flint Hills dissolved into prairie seemed to confirm that I was trespassing. So much space! The sky seemed to lurch above me. Every time I left my apartment that first week, it felt like a bird was going to swoop down and get me.
That sense of exposure followed me into Denison Hall as I began the M.A. program. In round table creative writing workshops, my manuscript on the desk in front of me, my hand sweating against a pencil, I initially felt like a mouse crouched low against a field row — the opinions and criticism of my classmates circling overhead. At first, I felt just as vulnerable in my Teaching Assistant orientation class — I’d never dedicated so much journal space to chronicling my own mistakes.
But these classroom spaces were so safe and managed with such warmth, that in time, this sort of intense self-analysis became the ultimate comfort. And writing and teaching became the air I breathe.
My first books, Viable and Landfall: A Ring of Stories, are anchored in poems and stories I workshopped at Kansas State. The lessons on experiential teaching have made their way into every classroom I’ve entered since. My K-State professors literally put books in my hands, often literally and outside of the reading lists, writers whose words recharted my imagination: Meridel LeSeur, Amy Bloom, Pam Houston, Edna O’Brien, Gretel Ehrlich.
The academics were only one of the forces that shaped my writing and teaching life during my time in Kansas. I was far from home, living alone for the first time in my life, so the relationships I formed with my peers and mentors felt particularly charged. We were up for all kinds of shenanigans: a kidnap breakfast, filling the back of a pick-up truck into a make-shift swimming pool, an impromptu camp-out in the Stull Cemetery. And we sought introspective adventures too. Easter morning, I got up before dawn to hike the Konza Prairie with my boyfriend, and as I saw the morning moon hanging over his shoulder and glow of the rising sun on his profile, I knew I had found the person I would marry. The next spring, Elizabeth Dodd drove a group of students north to the Platte River to witness the Sandhill crane migration. The sound of the sky filled with wing-flap and bird trill as hundreds of thousands of cranes descended on the shallow river made me feel like I was a witness to something ancient and never-ending, which is not unlike how it felt to be awakened to writing.
I didn’t want to stop learning. I would go further west to pursue an M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and it would be three more years before I made the same drive home, east through West Virginia. I wanted to show my fiancé that place where I had stood years before in the shadow of Kayford Mountain, nervous for how my life was about to open up. By then, the mountain was gone, the top torn open for coal and pushed into the valley on the other side. It made me heartsick to see it. It still does.
By then, I was just as changed — by my studies, by the things I had seen in prairie and in the desert, by the people I had come to know so well. Only I wasn’t smaller; I was bigger and more verdant and ever so much more solid than I had been before.
— Julie Hensley (MA ’99)