Interview with Q2 2018 Creative Nonfiction Runner-Up Pennie Stasik O'Grady

Sunday, June 03, 2018
She used to lay in the belly tickling grass as a small child, watching trails of ants, trying to imagine what the ants said with their wavering feelers when they stopped to talk to each other. She grew up wondering about things said and unsaid, felt and unfelt, and what is possible as a result.

Pennie Stasik O’Grady writes about family—being the parent, being the child. She believes the support of other writers is an extension of the family she needs, where her stories are most reliably told and received. She is in the early stages of sending out her work. She divides her time unequally between writing, parent coaching (, caring for her parents in Ohio, and enjoying time with family and friends. She lives with her husband in Seattle and unabashedly relishes hanging out with their two grown children. She loves reading, board games, dancing in bare feet, and savors the dazzling grey salt-infused damp of the Pacific Northwest.

The relationships between parents and children can be complicated. Read Pennie's poignant essay An Ordinary Woman here and then return to learn more about Pennie's inspiration.

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

WOW: Your bio for this essay caught my attention from the opening sentence--very well done! What is your advice for hooking readers with your bio? Any tips you'd like to share with us?

Pennie: Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it! The way I approached the task of writing my bio was as a piece of flash memoir that of course covered the important bits I was asked to include. A college friend nailed it when he said, “I not only write about what I know, I also write to find out what I think.” I asked myself what one of my early memories might say about the way I think and write. Contemplating worlds both familiar and foreign sparked my imagination as a child and made me want to express that somehow. There was something about ants — I saw they were intentional and worked together on projects. That I could observe them from above gave me a kind of omniscient perspective that might be a requirement for telling a story. I learned that small thing just writing this bio.

WOW: You are a parent coach and certified Positive Discipline parenting educator. Can you tell us how you became interested in the field and how you help families?

Pennie: I got interested in parenting as a study before I even had — or imagined I would have — kids. Like so many people drawn to psychology, we are looking to understand what we’ve suffered in our own lives. I became one of those perfect parents until I had children. Then reality hit. I read stacks and stacks of parenting books and luckily lived in an area that offered high quality classes. That’s how I discovered Positive Discipline.

As an educator and coach I help parents bring the information we have about how children experience the world — something we are far more clear about now than we were when my children were small — into the practical art of parenting their particular children that reflects family values, personalities and lifestyles. What are the foundational needs that must be met for children to thrive and how does that translate into the realities of particular parents and families? I did not sail through parenting my own children. I worked at it. As a result, I also bring the experience and understanding of the difficulties as well as the tools that worked for me and others to transform our parenting. And I have the long view of a quarter century of parenthood.

WOW: As a writer who is in "the early stages of sending out her work," what types of writing are you currently working on now?

Pennie: I write about the distant, recent and current past translated into the needs of the present. I am drawn to reflect upon the threads of connection in the family I come from, the family my husband comes from, and the family we have co-created — the way we were parented and the parenting we brought to our children — the way we derive meaning from our experiences, the culture we are embedded in and which we generate, what we pass on knowingly and unknowingly. It sounds like I’m so intentional about all of this, but mostly I’m a fish swimming in the water I notice only occasionally, and when I do I like to write about it.

When I started writing I wondered what I would write about when all my memories were “used up.” Well, the funny thing is that the more I write, the more I remember and the more I find to write about. For now my focus is on short pieces, from 200 to 6,000 words. Pieces I am working on include experiences in Catholic school, living in the midwest, being a parent, losing my parents to dementia.

I have a mission for my writing work. I try to bring hope and inspiration — maybe some relief — to readers as I tell my story. We are all, at the very least, children of parents. I think the stories that we tell, and the stories that we read can help us grow or hold us back, lift us up or keep us down. We are at a cultural moment where we are craving stories that help us make sense of the many crises that surround us. I want to pick up my tiny little corner of the world and do what I can to bring us into a better way forward. As a writer I hold a healing vision for myself as well as for my readers. And I hope to leave a legacy for my own family of stories that help rather than hurt.

My writing falls into the memoir and creative nonfiction genres. I have a dream of writing one of those long pieces I’ve read so many of — the things we call books. Made of paper. That you can hold and smell and physically turn its pages by hand. They’ve been a safe harbor throughout my life and I’d like to make a contribution to the pool.

WOW: You paint such a vivid picture of your mother in "An Ordinary Woman," and the anecdote about the contents of the garbage can had me rolling. Was it hard to find a balance in between the challenging parts of being your mother's child and the memories that bring a smile to your face? What was the revision process like on this piece?

Pennie: Yes, this has been a huge challenge! Thank you for noticing. My mother was a very difficult woman. My memory is clogged with the hard parts of being her daughter and scant on the smiles. I have worked long and hard to come to compassion for her and I still work on that. It has been challenging to write about her in a balanced way. I wrote this piece on her 84th birthday last year. I wanted to write something to celebrate her. I had never done that before.

WOW: Let's turn the tables a bit for a minute. If your children were writing an essay about what they remember about you as a mother, what types of memories do you think they would write about (good or bad!)

Pennie: That’s fair and such a great question! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my kids had only loving memories of their fabulous childhoods and their even more fabulous mother? That’s what I’d like to report. I know for a fact that wasn’t their experience of me. Like most of us, it was a mixed bag. They’ve cited fond memories of cooking, crafting and us reading piles of books together, along with the arguments. I think they, like me, would (if they were so inclined) write most about the hard stuff — the stuff that is ripe for healing. I like to think that would lead them to a place of understanding and forgiveness, benefitting their own loved ones, forward and back. This is a true power of writing.

WOW: This line from your response above sticks with me the most: "I think they, like me, would (if they were so inclined) write most about the hard stuff — the stuff that is ripe for healing." We wouldn't be writers and storytellers without those experiences! Congratulations again and we wish you continued success in your future endeavors.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Thanks for the wonderful interview. It takes a talented writer/deep thinker to come up with the perfect questions.

Pennie--You know those "long pieces" called books could be made up of smaller pieces, like vignettes, don't you? ;)

Just from reading your essay, I know that I would stand in line to buy your memoir. Don't save it just for your family. You have a compelling tale to tell--a mixed tale, but that's what life is--a tale that needs to have a bigger audience than just your siblings and kids and cousins.

If you aren't already, start on writing that long piece--one story at a time. Don't just dream it. Make your dream public (share it on your blog/on Facebook/tell your friends and family who have pester and persistence potential) and give yourself a deadline to finish your first draft. A year from now? A year and a half from now? (Make that goal/deadline public, too. That way, it'll make you feel a bit accountable.)

Pennie, I can't wait until you finish your book... and I'm confident it will be a case of "when" and no "if."

Pennie Stasik O'Grady said...

Thanks, Sioux. I think you have given me a case of inspirational blushing. I appreciate your suggestions of now actionables. I like the "pester and persistence potential" of family and friends. Hah!

Angela Mackintosh said...

What an inspiring interview! Great job on the questions, Renee!

Pennie ~ The scene with the garbage can actually happened to me a couple months before I read your essay, so it was both hilarious and cringe-worthy. Ugh, mine were covered in a frenzy of ants. So I had ants biting me while I threw away tampons and pads. lol I think it's so interesting that your mom was nocturnal! You did a great job choosing and writing the perfect descriptions; it pulled me in right away. I agree that we need stories to make sense of the world, to feel so not alone, to feel connected through words in a way that sometimes feels closer than real life because we've had time to refine our thoughts. Words do heal.

I agree with Sioux. You should definitely write a memoir or collection of essays! I would love to read it. Thanks so much for your interview, and I will be following your career. :)

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