Interview with Mary Roberson Wiygul, Q1 2017 Creative Nonfiction Contest Runner Up

Sunday, February 25, 2018
Mary Roberson Wiygul is a high school English teacher who has taught in the public school system for over twenty years. Her writing is heavily influenced by her small town Southern upbringing and reflects both the humor and the heartbreak of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Her work has been published in Huffington Post, Hippocampus Magazine, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and by the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop. Her dream is to write a memoir and someday try her hand at fiction. Currently, she loves spending time with her family and traveling with her husband who has taught her that dreams really do come true.

Be sure to read Mary's winning entry here and then return back to learn more about the author.

----------Interview by Renee Roberson

WOW: Congratulations, Mary and thank you for stopping by to chat with us today. "The Debutant" is a complex piece that deals with the subject of alcoholism in a family, which I'm sure many of our readers can relate to. How did you decide to focus on the snapshot in time that featured a cotillion ball?

Mary: “The Debutant” is one of the few pieces I have written that actually tackles the tough stuff. I began writing humorous memoir pieces about my family because I love making people laugh. I definitely have some crazy dysfunctional family stories that are hilarious, but I also think that laughter is my coping mechanism. It is easier to deal with the memories by filtering them though humor. At the prompting of a close friend, I finally decided to write from the more emotional side of things. A few years ago, as I was rummaging through the attic, I found the torn dress I wrote about in this story. The scotch tape is still underneath holding the material in place. When I found it, the memories flooded back, and I knew when I began to write about the more difficult things, this memory would be the one I started with. This particular moment in my life showcases the dichotomies that exist in many alcoholic families. The word “cotillion” usually evokes the idea of wealth or high society. Getting ready for the cotillion ball in a bedroom with holes in the floor and no paint on the walls conveys that what was going on in our inside world was not what we presented to the outside world. My dad, in his sober state, trying to help fix the dress is also representative of this theme. When he tapes the pieces back together, underneath the dress is still ugly and torn, but on the outside, everything looks fine. As Daddy said in the story, “No one will know, if you don’t tell.” This is an unspoken code in many alcoholic families.

WOW: Unfortunately, that is so true. I'd say in this case writing from the emotional side of things worked in your favor! Your writing has been published in places like Huffington Post and the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop, among others. Can you tell us a little about your writing process and where you get your ideas from?

Mary: All of my ideas come from my life. I usually focus on one moment at a time that I remember vividly. (My husband says I remember everything vividly!) I take each of the moments I want to write about and try to reconstruct the events that led up to that moment. I usually write the bare bones of the story first and then go back and try to remember exact details. Visualization is a valuable tool in my process. I also make several drafts of each story, but they are usually all written in the span of a few days. One of my many downfalls is that once I start a story, I feel compelled to finish it. I would eventually like to write longer pieces, even a whole memoir, but I am going to have to learn to slow down and take my time with things if this is ever going to happen.

WOW: There's often a delicate balance when sharing stories such as yours that feature "both humor and heartbreak." How do you work to find that perfect balance when writing and editing a piece?

Mary: I honestly don’t know if there is such a thing as a perfect balance. Often, when my friends read my work, they comment on parts that they interpret as heartbreaking that I meant to be funny. "The Debutant” is one of the few pieces I have written where there is definitely no balance between heartbreak and humor. In this story, I didn’t filter anything through humor, so I could convey my true feelings in the situation.

WOW: That's the beautiful thing about writing--how each reader has his or her own interpretation of the words. Speaking of other people's words, as a high school English teacher, I'm sure you are probably an avid reader. Who are some of your favorite authors?

Mary: I feel like this should be an easy question for an English teacher, but for me it really isn’t. Because I am so often grading student papers and making lesson plans, I feel like I don’t get to read as often as I would like. When I do get to read, my taste is somewhat eclectic. Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker are all favorites of mine. I also love Pat Conroy and Jeannette Walls. Growing up, I used to read the Erma Bombeck and Lewis Grizzard books that my Momma would bring home, so I have to add them to the list as well. I absolutely love a good Southern humorous read, so I have to include Stephanie McAfee. Her Diary of a Mad Fat Girl series kept me in stitches. I would love to write a similar series someday and have already named my characters and started character sketches for that!

WOW: That sounds fun! What was the topic of your very first published non-fiction piece and what inspired you to write it?

Mary: I am from Mississippi, and in the South, we take SEC football seriously. My husband and I root for rival SEC teams, so we are what is referred to as “a house divided.” My first published piece was actually entitled, “Bulldog Gospel,” and was a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the coping mechanisms I have had to develop being a Mississippi State Bulldog fan (Hail, State!) living with a die-hard Ole Miss rebel fan. (Bless his heart. He just doesn’t know any better). It was published in a local publication called Southern Roots. It was fun to write and stirred up a lot of good-natured fun between our friends who are fans from both sides.

WOW: Oh, that is so funny. I love a good "bless your heart" moment. Thank you for sharing these insights into your writing process with our readers! We look forward to reading more of your work in the future. 


Crystal Otto said...

Great interview ladies - and congratulations Mary!!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Wonderful interview, ladies!

Mary ~ Hearing the inspiration behind your essay makes it that much more brilliant. Your essay is a genius, heartbreaking masterpiece that I felt personally connected to. You managed so much depth in so few words.

When you said you feel compelled to finish a story, I'm the same way! If I don't finish it in one or two sittings, I don't come back to it. I also found myself nodding to your statement about balance and reader interpretation. I've written pieces that I thought were funny and had readers cry. True story. I don't even know how that happened! I guess we can try to filter things through our own lens but ultimately people will take what they want from it. That means that you're allowing the reader to make her own connections, which means you trust her and aren't spelling things out. :)

Thanks for the interview, and I'll be following your work!

Mary Roberson Wiygul said...

Thank you so much! It is such an honor to have been named a runner up in the WOW! Creative Nonfiction contest. I am so glad I found this website. The articles have been incredibly helpful, and the writing is amazing. I love that you have created a place where women can come together to share their stories and provide advice and encouragement for each other. I am excited about submitting more writing in the future!

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