From muppets to puffers: Sydney Hinton turns random facts into inquisitive writing

Sydney Hinton

By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

Sydney Hinton knew she wanted to trek 2,000 miles from her Rock Island, Illinois home to study creative writing at Fresno State in the university’s Master of Fine Arts program.

What she didn’t know was that her graduate work as an editor with The Normal School literary magazine would not only give her a taste of the publishing world but would also help her build a vast and strange arsenal of random facts.

“One of my favorite things by far,” Hinton said, “is gaining all these weird tidbits of knowledge during the editing process. There’s so much I probably wouldn’t have known about before fact-checking a piece for the magazine.”

Just to name a few of her favorite discoveries: the theory of the uncanny valley; the daily lives of pufferfish; the history of eugenics; and Muppets creator Jim Henson’s emotional connection to Big Bird, the 8-foot-tall beloved PBS character.

“You see, Snuffy — Big Bird’s imaginary friend on Sesame Street — was always validated by people who couldn’t see Snuffy, until later seasons when he became a ‘real’ character,” Hinton said, referring to the Joshua Elwand Smith essay, “Thank You, Kermit,” published in The Normal School’s pop culture special issue. “This choice was because of the writers’ anxiety about kids who were victims of sexual abuse keeping quiet, for fear of adults not believing them.”

“I remember editing that essay in a coffee shop and trying to keep my cool and not cry about how much remarkable thought and care goes into characters and episodes, to make sure children are taken care of,” she said.

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Hinton, a third-year MFA candidate, is entering her third semester serving as managing editor for Fresno State’s student-run national literary magazine. She also works as an editorial assistant for the Creative Writing Program, directly supporting the day-to-day operations of The Normal School website, the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry contest, and the English Department’s events and communications.

When COVID-19 hit California in March 2020, Hinton was in her second semester in the Fresno State MFA program, and her first as an editorial assistant. The university’s budget, immediately strained by the pandemic, put her assistantship in jeopardy for the 2020-21 academic year.

But thanks to support from the Dean’s Council Annual Fund, the College of Arts and Humanities was able to give both Hinton and a second grad student (new alumna Jer Xiong) the opportunity to continue to grow as professionals as they look toward careers in publishing after graduation.

“The support from the college, simply put, meant that I could continue living and studying in Fresno,” Hinton said. “I was able to maintain stability through my work as an editorial assistant, and it helped ease some financial fears.”

Prof. Steven Church, the MFA program’s coordinator and The Normal School’s founding editor, said Hinton’s editorial work combines a strenuous work ethic with a deep and abiding concern for giving voice to marginalized communities.

Hinton and her peers have further shaped the magazine’s goals, Church said. The Normal School continues to be a national leader in publishing women writers, and the editors have committed more than ever to publishing queer, Black, indigenous, and writers of color.

“Sydney cares for her coworkers and treats writers with respect and kindness,” said Church, a professor of English. “I have the utmost confidence in Sydney, and I’m confident she’ll be successful not only as a writer but also as an editor/publisher.”

Hinton’s own nonfiction writing focuses on body image, mental health, feminism, and the unequal expectations placed upon women. Her essays utilize an array of imagery, personal narrative, and reportage — and, of course, a dose of those unexpected facts.

“At the center of my writing is marginalized bodies and how they’re commanded to fit into society’s unfair constructs,” she said. 

Dr. John Hales, a professor of English, said Hinton provides sensitive and thorough feedback to her peers in the graduate creative nonfiction workshop. She also writes beautifully about a wide range of experiences, from perspectives often not encountered.

“Last fall, Sydney arrived directly from what was then ground zero of the pandemic, a senior living community in which she worked as an aide and administrator,” Hales said. “Her essay gifted her readers with a vivid, up-close picture of what COVID means in terms of actual people, the residents whose often challenging personalities persevered in their own unique and problematic ways, and the caregivers who were suddenly facing an entire new range of responsibilities and consequences.”

Hales said Hinton also brings an inquisitive presence — with the writing skills to match — to more routine experiences in people’s lives. In particular, he said, some of her essays explore in exquisite detail the trials, tribulations, and hopeful expectations of online dating, revealing ambitious questions about vulnerability, self-regard, and intimacy.

Enter one of Hinton’s random-fact faves: the pufferfish.

A recent essay of Hinton’s alternates experiences from her life with an engagingly scientific description of the survival habits of puffers. To the amazement and enlightenment of the class, Hales said, the life of the tetraodontidae untangled “profoundly human questions of intimacy and connection,” and the ways biology can be infused with cultural expectations.

“Sydney’s writing always offers her readers a serious blend of ambition and groundedness,” Hales said, “the bravely personal, with what’s essentially human.”

Hinton hopes to work in the publishing industry someday. Doing so would honor her late grandmother, who passed away earlier this year. She credits her grandmother for always encouraging her editing, writing, and reading, and she said that she has “now taken over as the family editor and writer, something that’s extremely bittersweet.”

In her last year in the MFA program, Hinton sees her work with The Normal School as a way she can pay it forward for other writers, until she is published.

“I’m patiently sending out essays for publication, but in the meantime I can work with other authors and contributors to get their works out in the world,” Hinton said. “And it’s like a sneak peek, to read what they’ve worked so hard to write, and getting the behind-the-scenes look at what is about to go live for everyone to see.”

In addition to the editorial assistantship, Hinton has also been awarded the Dean’s Council Scholarship (2021-22), the Edward and Alberta Brown Scholarship (2019-20), and three nonresident tuition fee waiver awards from the Division of Research and Graduate Studies.

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