Wednesday, May 27, 2009

 

Interview with WOW! Runner-Up Jen Payne

Jen Payne is a runner up in the Fall Essay Contest sponsored by skirt! Books. Read her winning story, How the Universe Moved My Sofa and Changed My Life.

Jen's Bio:
I've been a writer for as long as I can remember--adolescent poetry, high school newspaper, college journalism, freelance writing, zine publishing, blog entries. For the past 16 years, I've been a wearer of all hats--editor, copywriter, marketing wordsmith--as the owner of my own graphic design company, Words by Jen, in Branford, Connecticut.

In 2006, I launched Creative Soup (www.creativesoup.org), an online collaboration of artists and writers dedicated to the pursuit of creativity in all its forms. Truth be told, it was the excuse I needed to reconnect to my own creative voice, which had gotten lost amidst the busy-ness of everything else.

That creative voice has always been inspired by those "life moments" that move us--love and loss, joy and disappointment, milestones and turning points. My writing serves as witness to these, in powerful (often humorous) vignettes of thoughts, impressions, and feelings.
I am currently working on several poems, a series of short stories, and my first novel.

If you haven't done so already, check out Jen's award-winning entry "How the Universe Moved My Sofa and Changed My Life" and then return here for a chat with the author.

WOW: Congratulations on placing in the Fall 2008 Essay Contest! How do you feel about your prize-winning entry? Have you won other writing contests?

Jen: It was very exciting to find out that my essay was selected for the Top 10! I have always considered myself a writer, but only recently made a commitment to put my work "out there," to get published. Having one of my first attempts be acknowledged reminds me that THIS is what I am supposed to be doing. So, much thanks to WOW! Women On Writing for the encouragement and incentive to continue on this path!

WOW: You're welcome! I'm very glad we could help! Which of your writing accomplishments makes you most proud?

Jen: I have to say, there has not been one particular moment, or one specific piece of writing, that makes me most proud. What I am most proud of is the process of this writing--to take an idea that tip-toes in and transform it into a story or poem; to speak a truth that others can relate to; to weave words in such a way that it moves the reader, or opens them up to share their own stories.

I had lunch with an old friend a while ago. We hadn't seen each other in eight years, so the conversation was a bit awkward and somewhat censored in that way we are with strangers. I told her I'd been working on a new poem, and she asked me to read it. As I did, you could see the pretense fall away. The poem was a simple piece of truth, but it gave us both permission to be ourselves. By the end of lunch, we were talking and sharing stories as if no time had passed since we'd last seen each other.

WOW: That's a great story because it shows one of the many ways that writing can be a powerful tool. I hear that you have a website. When and how did you get the inspiration to launch your website Creative Soup?

Jen: I am lucky to be connected to a number of creative people--writers, artists, poets. A common thread we all seem to share is the need to find time for our creative work. In my mind, there is a difference between the work we do for pay, and the work we do by pure inspiration. Creative Soup was founded for that reason: to give people a chance to connect to their creative spirit more often.

We do four seasonal installations a year, usually with a theme or prompt. Contributors are encouraged to participate if they are so inspired--to submit work if they can, with no pressure to produce if they can't.

I like to think Creative Soup offers a gently tap on the shoulder: "find the time."

WOW: That's a great idea. For me, finding the time is one of the biggest writing challenge I face. You must be pretty good at finding the time to write because I hear you are currently working on your first novel. Would you mind sharing your progress so far, or what it is about?

Jen: The novel is a fairy-tale of sorts, loosely based on the narrative structure of a hero's journey (or heroine's, in this case). It's part coming-of-age and part life lesson, with a good dose of humor. It started, actually, as a series of very short stories. It's been an interesting process to take those initial ideas and build on them, create characters and a narrative, and keep the story flowing smoothly from beginning to end. Much different than working on a poem or short story, and certainly more challenging!

WOW: It sounds like a great project, and I hope we all have a chance to read it someday! What is the best writing advice you've ever received?

Jen: There have been three pieces of advice that I think of often when I write. The first was something my Dad taught me the day I slammed my sled into a tree when I was four. "When you fall off a horse, get right back on," he said that day, and many times after. You have successes, you have failures, but don't be afraid to keep trying.

The second was from my high school English teacher, who taught me the bones of good writing: organization and flow. He critiqued a poem I wrote once and said, "This needs to be more universal." I think about that every time I write, and always read a piece through that filter before I'm finished--will other people relate to this?

The final piece of advice was from a good friend who is an award-winning author and publisher. She told me "you're not a real writer until you can wallpaper your bathroom with rejection letters." It helps keep things in perspective--but I'm grateful I have a very small bathroom!

WOW: Yes, that is so true, but it’s all of those rejections that make the successes so much sweeter. Thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!

Interviewed by: Anne Greenawalt

The Spring Flash Fiction Contest is still open! Deadline: May 31, 2009 (midnight, Pacific time) Visit: http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/contest.php for details

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

 

Interview with Julie Hoerth - Runner Up in WOW! Fall Essay Contest

Health writer by day. Freelance writer and novelist by night.

Fall essay contest runner up Julie Hoerth writes for a nutritional supplement company. Her subjects: natural medicines, covering everything from women's nutrition to mind/body fitness. But her favorite genre is creative nonfiction. Julie's work has appeared in local newspapers, magazines and business journals. Currently, she's co-authoring her first book.

Julie mentioned this is the first writing contest she has entered since the fourth grade and she was thrilled to be a finalist. WOW! is thrilled for her, too.

Have you read Julie's essay, Weight-Bearing Walls? Surf on over to WOW! and read it. You'll be glad you did.

WOW: Congratulations, Julie! I'm sure our readers are interested in learning about your approach to writing. Let's get started!

Your first image conjures up a happy home. I like the contrast with your husband's home. It shows that not everything in life is perfect and every house is full of secrets. How did you determine which memories to integrate and show how things can be similar yet different?

Julie: The memories from my childhood were easy…we are a close family, and dogs were considered kids/siblings at our house. My husband comes from a huge family, so sharing memories of large celebrations was only fitting. Both my husband and I were brought up by very loving parents in households where faith played an integral role. Those themes made it easy to tie the piece together. Obviously, I left a lot of memories out of the piece – word limits can be a blessing.

WOW: Yes, a word count keeps writing tight and makes a writer be selective. Speaking of being, selective, I find "putting the house through therapy" an interesting concept. Did the entire house go through therapy or just select rooms?

Julie: Oh, the entire house will have gone through therapy when we’re completely finished! Anyone that’s worked on a house knows it takes much longer to complete than you anticipate. I’ve never considered myself superstitious, but I must be to some extent – I really felt the need to change this home, to make it “ours”, and start fresh. I tend to try to control things that are out of my hands, and “putting the house through therapy” was my attempt to clear out any bad juju. (Who am I kidding – I must be superstitious!) But then you realize that erasing the past is impossible, and it’s the ability to forgive that allows you to move on and create new memories.

WOW: That's so true! Forgiveness has powerful effects. How did you determine which of your husband's memories should be included in your essay?

Julie: I got permission. I was sensitive to his feelings from the moment I started writing. It could have been edgier, but dredging up the past wasn’t my intent. A key part of this essay was the line, “despite hard times…” In fact, that was an alternate title I was considering. People are innately good, but we all make mistakes and have regrets. Thankfully, we are also able to grieve, forgive, heal and hopefully grow. Life goes on. At the same time, I didn’t want to minimize the events of my husband’s childhood. In many ways, they contribute to the person he is now.

WOW: That's such an important realization. It's great you understand how the past makes him the person he is.

Let's talk about writing. Your job requires different styles of writing. What brain switch do you have to make to focus on creative non-fiction and fiction?

Julie: At work I write marketing collateral, packaging copy, web articles, etc. Depending on the particular job, I’ve had to learn what level of creativity I can bring to the piece. Switching from non-creative to creative is quite easy – it comes more naturally for me. Switching the other way can be a challenge – it just takes a little more work. I have just started writing some fiction at home, and it’s not too tough to make the switch. It’s like taking a vacation from the writing I usually do, and there’s a sense of freedom knowing that I’m doing it just for me – at this point I’m not worried about critics or an audience.

WOW: That's wonderful! I'm sure the different styles provide that balance of freedom. What's your non-work writing routine like?

Julie: It’s…interesting. There’s no rhyme or reason to it at this point. I’m not one of those people that gets up before the rest of the world to hammer out five pages of writing each morning, but I wish I was. Since I write all day at work, I have to summon up the energy to face the computer screen once I get home – and I actually manage to a couple nights a week. I let my thoughts run wild. At work I have to remain focused, so once I get home, I’m all over the place. I guess that’s why I start much more than I finish. I’m working on that…

WOW: Good luck finding your focus! Those of us who juggle a full-time job and write empathize with the dilemma. Have you entered and/or won other contests? Any advice you'd like to offer to writers considering entering a contest?

Julie: I won a fiction contest in 4th grade with a story called Skates on High. It was about a little girl who could fly when she put on her magic roller skates. So it only took me about twenty years to enter another one. We all have the grandest of intentions, but we make excuses and let life get in the way. After entering this contest, I encourage other writers to just do it. It’s amazing what kind of support is out there for you, and you’ll miss a lot of great opportunities if you never try!

WOW: Excellent advice! What projects are you currently working on?

Julie: I am currently co-authoring a book with a friend who lost her brother when she was young. Her family had published a grief book a few years ago, and this is more of a “life after grief” book. I have so much admiration for her – she and her family created a scholarship foundation that surpassed any of their expectations, and this book is a tribute to the many people they have met along the way. You can learn more about their foundation at briansjourney.com.

WOW: Thanks, Julie, for talking about your essay and your writing ideas. Good luck with your book project.

Interview by LuAnn Schindler

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

 

Interview with Holly Helscher: Fall 2008 Personal Essay Runner Up


Kudos to Holly Helscher, a runner up in the Fall 2008 WOW! Personal Essay contest. Holly's eclectic education background includes a doctorate in Metaphysics from the American Institute of Holistic Theology, a BS in English Literature and a MA in Community Counseling. Currently, she resides in Tucson, Arizona, where she serves as Campus President of Brown Mackie College. Her move from America's heartland to the desert is the basis for her essay.


A college creative writing course sparked Holly's love for writing. Since then, she has taken additional writing courses to learn more about how to perfect the craft, including the Antioch Writers Workshop and Women Writing for (a) Change.

If you haven't had the opportunity to read Holly's essay, The Desert Was in My Closet, which focuses on colors in the closet, head over to WOW! and check it out. Your closet, as well as your wardrobe, will thank you.

WOW!: Congratulations on writing an award-winning essay, Holly! And thanks for sharing your time and talents with us today. Sometimes writers have a difficult time fine tuning an idea. Once you saw the contest prompt, did you have several ideas in mind or did this story stand out?

Holly: This story was screaming to be written. When I saw the prompt, I immediately thought of those white walls and my struggle to not only adjust to them, but to an entirely new geographic region. The desert can be void of color which drove me nuts. The adjustment was much harder than I thought it would be. As that part of my life unfolded, I never dreamed it would change my wardrobe.

WOW!: Moving must have been a huge adjustment. It's interesting how something most people take for granted, like a wardrobe, can control a person's preconceived notion. Do you think many people fall into a "color trap" where they tend to wear or like certain colors because it is expected of them or because the color relates to a person's work?

Holly: I actually do believe people fall into a “color trap”. Big business, corporate America or whatever you want to call it does have an expectation of dark suits. I remember being told that in order to dress for success, you must never wear a color that BMW wouldn’t make a car for. At that time BMW only made cars in blues, blacks and grays. It’s funny how things stick with you. But to give you an example of how ingrained conformity can be. When I first walked onto the campus of Brown Mackie College ten years ago, I was able to immediately classify employees by how they dressed. Very casual dress with all kinds of colored shirts and blouses marked instructors. Business casual or slacks and shirt and tie, mostly blue and white, indicated middle managers. A dark suit and white shirt with a conservative tie indicated upper management. When I interviewed and met people, I was exactly right. Wardrobe expectations are everywhere, but women are particularly prone to this because we’ve learned in order to get ahead in a “man’s” world, we have to dress like a man. And we conformed. In looking back over my career, 25 years ago (e gads!) that was true. But times have changed and women can dress more femininely if we want to. I still think mini skirts and cleavage in the workplace are unacceptable, but that may just show I’m a little on the conservative side.

WOW!: Yes, you are right. Times have certainly changed, and so have fashions! It's interesting how the counselor pinpointed your closet. Your frustration with the counselor was humorous yet heartfelt. If a counselor told me to look in my closet, I'd tell her it is overstuffed and color-coded. As a counselor, how do you get others to achieve awareness of a situation on their own? Do you find writing a way to achieve that same goal?

Holly: Unlike television, personal insight is not quick. We all have areas in ourselves that we can’t see, particularly when a storm is raging inside. It’s far easier for a counselor to identify where we might be stuck. But really good counselors avoid giving direct ideas because personal growth works best if the client does the exploration. Besides that, if a client isn’t ready to hear it, nothing happens except defensiveness. Ideas such as looking in a closet for wardrobe ruts are non-threatening in nature and can shift a person’s thoughts just enough to look at a problem from a different perspective. In practice I have to listen to a person to know what ideas might work. Someone who is psychologically savvy is not going to gain a lot of insight from using words because words can be used to avoid issues. So suggesting that the person draw pictures using her left hand, or even writing a letter using the left hand bypasses that brain function and gets more to the heart of the matter. Other ideas work for other types of people. The whole idea is to find something that allows the person to see something differently. In that way growth and insight occur. Writing helps me a lot because I love to write. It works best if I don’t pay attention to editing, punctuation, spelling, and wordsmithing. Those tasks are too cerebral. Fast writes where I just type and don’t look at the screen are much more helpful when something is bothering me. That’s the point of fast writing for me. But I keep them because some of them can be polished up and used in a more professional way. Others, however, are just for me.

WOW!: Wonderful! I find writing without editing helps me work through problems, too, and I've polished a few pieces of publication. Your education background is so varied. Have your education experiences led to other writing opportunities?

Holly: My experiences in education have given me tons of opportunities to write. Writing isn’t just poetry or short stories or novels. Writing is communication and good writing is always in style. My writing skills have gotten lots of funding for programs. I’ve also been able to set up training programs which requires a different style of writing. Research papers, of course, are things that are common in education. Journal articles also abound in the educational field and I’ve done some of those as well. One time I was even paid to write a technical manual on how a distributor cap worked. Imagine that!

WOW!: (Chuckles) You never know what experiences will bring in the writing dollar! Your work schedule must be busy. How do you balance your administration position with writing?

Holly: Good question. I’m a morning person. And when I say “morning” I’m talking 3-4 a.m. That’s when I do a lot of my writing. Some people wonder how I can get up that early. I just can. It’s always been that way. But I think the real draw for me is that everything is quiet and there are absolutely no obligations pulling at me at that time of day. That is so important to me. Women are obligated to many people all the time. Kids need to eat, dogs need to be walked, work has a start time. And once the obligations start tugging, personal time evaporates. I really think writing is like exercise – I have to do it at the same time everyday. Then it’s a habit and since those early morning hours contain no interruptions, the only resistance to writing is my own. I also carry around a set of index cards. I get the ones that have a spiral binder. When I hear a funny line, or perhaps see a funny situation, I jot it down for use as a prompt later. There’s nothing worse for me than looking at that computer screen and having absolutely nothing to write. That’s where the index cards are valuable. I flip one open and then I take off writing. That allows me to have a cache of writing. When I have that, I’m ready for opportunity.

WOW!: What a great idea! I may borrow the flip index card idea! You never know when inspiration will hit. What projects are you currently working on?

Holly: I’m working on an ebook about the blended family. I talk to women all the time who struggle with step children and former spouses. They realize at some point in the first year of marriage that things are not as easy as who disciplines the kids. I have yet to find anything out there that genuinely speaks to challenge, which could be one reason why divorce rates in blended families are through the roof. There is so much at stake in these complex situations and I’d like to give women some practical ideas on how to manage. I have a lot of personal experience in this area and am one of the lucky ones who made it through to when all the kids were emancipated. But it was touch and go in some of the early years. Getting through is not impossible, but it’s tough and women need help because quite frankly, most of them end up being scared to death.

WOW!: As a step-parent, I understand that delicate balance. This sounds like such an interesting project. The contest experience seems to have paid off for you. Have you entered other contests? Any advice to writers considering entering?

Holly: The Fall Personal Essay Contest from WOW was the first contest I ever entered. I was energized by it. That caused me to start looking for other contests and I was amazed at how many are out there. So I entered more. I’ve discovered I love the challenge of the contest. What I like best about contest writing is that I can pick contests that have topics I enjoy writing about. In freelance work there isn’t always that choice. I think I could become a contest junkie. LOL I think contest writing is a lot like writing grants. You have to pay attention to the criteria. In this contest there was a suggestion to look at the book written by the judge. I spent three hours driving all over Tucson to find one and I ultimately did. It was by looking at the book that I discovered writing about my closet would be acceptable. What if I had written it about my closet and her book was just about living rooms? I would have lost because it would not have technically met the criteria. I do know contest entries have to be exact from font to word count to topic. There was another contest I entered recently where the topic seemed straightforward. But I reviewed some of the archived magazines from this organization. What I found was that the articles are distinctively spiritual in nature. The topic didn’t tell me that. But because I took the time to research, I knew it had to have a spiritual slant to even be considered. See what I mean? And of course nothing, but nothing, replaces editing and presentation. Good content can be completely overshadowed by poor presentation. I tell students this all the time. If you have a good paper but a reader has to struggle through poor grammar and punctuation to grasp the content, you’ve lost the battle. Writing for contests, actually writing for anything, is much the same.

WOW!: That's great advice, Holly. Thank you for taking time to talk with us about your writing journey. You find time and offer practical advice. Best of luck to you with your writing career and book.

Interview by LuAnn Schindler

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