The “Combinational Creativity” Driving This Great Jesuit University Magazine

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There’s so much creative goodness in the newest issue of LMU Magazine, the magazine of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. There’s football, basketball and baseball; SoCal birds; visual art, faith reflections, presidential history, economics and a poet’s list of her favorite poets; an essay on Joan Didion and an interview with Henry Louis Gates.

As I paged through it, I thought to myself: This is exactly what a Jesuit university magazine should look like, and it reflects the heart of a Jesuit education. It’s curious about the world and leaves no subject unexplored.

So I emailed the magazine’s editor, Joseph Wakelee-Lynch, some questions about his creative process.

Mike: From a 30,000-foot view, how do you build an issue? How do you discern what goes in? What goals are you trying to achieve?

Joe: If you claim your university is unique and distinctive, then your university magazine should illustrate that. The magazine is one of the most wide-reaching voices of the university and one of its most important public faces, so to speak. Its content has to either reflect or support, whether indirectly or clearly, the university’s mission statement: the encouragement of learning, the education of the whole person, and the service of faith and the promotion of justice. So, the most basic goal is to illustrate the mission statement in action.

LMU Magazine also aims to evoke alumni pride in the university’s strengths and their connection to the institution. If we decide we’ll do that through the vehicle of a magazine, then we need to give readers the best magazine we can, not the best brochure, case statement or multi-page press release.

How is an issue built? We try to conceptualize articles that are timely, provocative, surprising, inspirational or insightful. When we have those kinds of article in mind, we often try to match a writer with the story. Other stories present themselves, so it’s important to seize an unexpected opportunity. Last, articles arise out of the personal interests of the staff. I’m fascinated by L.A.’s murals and its storefront churches, for example, and we’ve done photo essays on both.

The City of Los Angeles — LMU’s hometown — is on display throughout the magazine, even beyond the university’s physical boundaries. Why is place important to you as a university magazine editor?

It’s true: Los Angeles itself plays a very significant role in the magazine, intentionally so. We treat Los Angeles as one of the main characters in LMU’s story. This place is absolutely fascinating. L.A. is hugely significant with regard to U.S. Catholicism, entertainment, diversity, shipping, high tech, aerospace and space exploration, research, the arts, water issues, and it has serious social issues to confront, such as homelessness — how could we not bring L.A. into this magazine?

But I also think all Jesuit universities are inherently outward-oriented. That’s what “educating people for others” means. At LMU’s founding, Jesuit universities already existed in San Francisco and Santa Clara. Our university was intended to meet a need for Catholic education in Los Angeles. In that sense, you could say LMU exists today because of the place that it serves. So, the magazine capitalizes on location, on place.

As a staff, we like highlighting L.A. for another reason. Higher education in Los Angeles is dominated by the presence of UCLA and USC, in everything from the number of alumni to athletics and fundraising. So, our attitude is partly one of defiance: LMU owns L.A., too, and we’re not going to let the majors claim it without a fight. Frankly, we’re competitive about that: Our goal has always been to be the best university magazine in Los Angeles — and in the country. University magazines don’t compete in NCAA tournaments, needless to say. But LMU Magazine competes in both mainstream and higher education publications competitions. And we win awards regularly — more than 100.

It takes creativity to write a poem or essay or draw a bird. It also takes creativity to build a magazine that unites disparate poems, essays and images. How is this second form of creativity — let’s call it combinational creativity — different from the first kind? How are they similar?

On our staff, creativity can’t be either fully understood or defined. It’s definitely the product of particular minds at work and how they can spark one another. It’s partly the product of competitiveness: We often produce a decent idea then ask, “In what predictable way would a mediocre university magazine execute this?” Then go in a different direction. Also, we’re brutally honest in vetting one another’s ideas. The ratio of barbs to compliments that get passed around on our staff is probably 100 to 1. Fortunately, most of those barbs are hilarious.

Our process may not be very different than the creative process of a painter or poet. When I write my Editor’s Blog, I also try to be creative, surprising and insightful. I suppose the individual artist does all the vetting in the brain’s mind that a group does out loud.

What is one favorite feature from your tenure and why do you love it?

I have two: “Sweet Hope” by Lynell George, an LMU alumna and one of L.A.’s most respected writers. In an especially foreboding political moment, we gave Lynell an unusual blank check by asking, “What does hope look like to you right now? We’ll print whatever you have to say.” She wrote about her ancestors, their migration from Louisiana to Los Angeles, and Martin Luther King Jr. It was named among the Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction in “The Best American Essays 2019.”

The other is “Virtue Reality,” a forum about the seven deadly sins. For this feature, we identified seven writers and assigned a sin to each of them. My only instruction was that no one may use the word Trump. Novelist Susan Straight wrote about sloth and online buying. Poet Oliver de la Paz, an LMU alumnus, wrote about gluttony and his father’s obsession with collecting tube socks and guns.

A Jesuit alumnus, Brendan Busse, SJ, wrote about anger as gift as much as curse. The late David A. Sánchez, who taught in our Department of Theological Studies, wrote a lovely introduction. The illustrations are both disturbing and breathtaking. I’ve been fascinated by the Seven Deadly Sins since attending Catholic grade school in Philadelphia.