Sara Shea, winner of the 2013 Writers@Work Fellowship Competition for nonfictionInterview with Sara Shea, winner of the 2013 Writers at Work Fellowship for nonfiction. 

Tell us about your creative nonfiction piece ”Shine” that won this year’s Fellowship competition.  How did this piece come about?  

My winning piece “Shine” began as a writing assignment/writing sample to include with an application for enrollment in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville Graduate Center.  More specifically, I was applying for an Advanced Prose Writing Class with author Tommy Hays.  

The background on “Shine” began with my re-location from Connecticut suburbia to the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, where I lived on a remote mountain top.  My neighbors were farmers, moonshiners, and salt-of-the-earth country folk (along with bears, coyotes, owls and foxes.)  Life in backwoods TN was certainly a culture shock for me; I was inspired to write about my experience. “Shine” is what I produced.

 “Shine” was an important piece for me to write because it taught me about the power of place.  I believe that writers are drawn to write about places that have touched their hearts.  We all develop relationships with the geography, culture, and history of places we have lived.  These places dwell within us– often more deeply than we realize.  Talented writers allow these environments to emerge through their writing.  Readers crave these escapes – works that will transport them to new settings.

How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

My parents and grandparents read to me from the time I was an infant.  I learned to read at an early age, I was writing poems and stories by age four.  (I admire parents who turn off the television and read to young children – reading has a huge impact on creative spirits.)   Childhood teachers also greatly impacted my writing – teachers who encouraged me, recommended me for literary programs, etc.  On the whole, I think we underestimate the impact of early teachers. 

What do you find most useful in improving your writing?

The obvious answer is… reading.  I’m a voracious reader.  Classes, workshops, seminars, lectures, author readings/book signings are also useful and helpful.  I love discovering new writers.  I’ve also made a point of reaching out to writers I admire; studying with them, attending their workshops, etc.   The real answer is… never stop learning: reach out to writers whom you feel are valuable teachers.

What day jobs have you held?  How did any of them influence your writing?

I’ve been a grocery store cashier, a farm hand, a receptionist, a summer camp counselor, a nanny, an exotic dancer, a freelance journalist and photographer, a corporate marketing coordinator, a graphic designer, an advertising sales representative, Assistant Publisher of a magazine, an SEO content writer and editor, a librarian and a speech therapist.  I interned at National Geographic Magazine, I served as a Student Associate Editor for The Kenyon Review.  I’ve also had the experience of launching my own marketing and public relations firm. I’m drawn to jobs that offer unusual experiences; adventures I feel will enhance my writing, or jobs that will give me more practice at writing.

What inspires you?  What motivates you to write?

Travel.  Adventures.  Powerful experiences.  Memories.  People.  Unusual stories that catch my attention when I realize they need to be written down or recorded in some way.

How do you know when a piece of writing is complete?

I don’t.  Sometimes I make myself crazy revising, editing, re-writing, and struggling to perfect my stories or poems.  But as the saying goes, perfection is something to aim for and dismiss at the same time.  I submit my strongest work for contests, awards, or publication.  When my work finds a home – when it runs in a literary journal, magazine, or earns recognition… then I am somewhat satisfied that it’s complete.  I guess I leave the decision of “completeness” up to others.

What books are you reading now?

The Fault in our Stars by John Green, Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Fire to Fire by Mark Doty, Father and Son by Larry Brown.

What is a book by another that you wish you had written?

There are many writers I admire… as well as writers whose experiences I’m envious of; or fascinated by… but I strive to produce my own unique work.  I have no wish to have produced something other than my own work- so that question doesn’t make much sense to me.  My most admired writers include; Rumi, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver, Mary Karr.

When are you happiest as a writer?

I enjoy meaningful conversations with other writers.  I enjoy reading.  I happy in the midst of adventures that I know will turn into great stories, poems or essays.  I am happy when I am busy writing, and able to focus on completing a project without distractions.  But I am probably happiest when someone reads my work, enjoys it, and actually feels a connection with it.

What do you think is the future of writing?  How will technology change literature?

Technology has certainly impacted literature and writing.  Ancient civilizations wrote on stone tablets, parchment, papyrus or scrolls.  Eventually, printing technology provided us with books.  Today we read online content– we read from Kindles, iPads, smartphones, computers etc. 

Books and paper are becoming outmoded; perhaps this is for the best.  The golden age of newspapers and magazines has passed.  In the future, libraries will become more like book/print media museums and will shift into community centers for author and literary related programs. 

Though the technology, format and presentation of writing will shift… the need for writers and great writing will not.  The desire to communicate though literature– to read… and write is something innate to humanity.

Writers @ Work is holding its annual writers conference at Alta Lodge in Alta, Utah, from June 5-9. See our conference page for all the details and register today!

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