Meet Melinda Hagenson, Runner Up in the WOW! Q3 2020 Creative Nonfiction Contest

Sunday, October 11, 2020
After completing three degrees at UC-Berkeley and USC, Melinda Hagenson spent twenty-five years teaching college English before escaping to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where she now spends her days thinking up ways to put off editing her first novel. Writing contests are among her favorite diversions; she placed second of 4,000 competitors in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge last year and has received multiple honorable mentions (for both poems and short stories) from the Wisconsin Writer’s Association. You can read her short story “A Play of Hopes and Fears” in The Independent Bookworm’s anthology The Adventure of Creation. She occasionally updates her blog at

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

WOW: Welcome, Melinda! “Nobody Said it Was Easy” is such a moving piece. Did you always know the story of the grandfather clock would play an integral part of the essay about your father? 

Melinda: I knew before I started writing that it would be about the clock, but what surprised me as it developed was that it wound up going in a very different direction than I’d planned. I had intended to write about how the clock was destroyed in a fire a couple of years after my dad passed away—a fire in which his wife, my stepmom, was killed. The essay wasn’t originally supposed to be about my dad at all. Surprise! I’m much more a pantser than a planner, and this essay is definitely a product of that. I often have no idea where a piece is going until it gets there. 

WOW: What advice would you give writers struggling to formulate a solid creative nonfiction essay? 

Melinda: I think the “rules” are similar to those for fiction writing. I guess I’d start by suggesting that you make lists. I make tons of lists. When you find a topic you want to explore, think about the So What—that is, not just what makes you think the piece is worth writing, but what might make it worth your reader’s time as well. There needs to be some kind of universal resonance, but you might not find it in the first or second draft. You should expect to revise many times, not just once or twice or even three or four times. It’s true that every first draft is crap, but even a fourth or fifth draft probably still needs fine tuning. For this particular essay (“Nobody Said it was Easy”), I did nine drafts. Oh, and try to include some dialogue. And that five-paragraph essay structure you learned in high school? Throw it out the window. 

WOW: Ha ha! I love that idea of throwing the five-paragraph essay structure out the window. Creative nonfiction has become much more of a fluid genre and I love that. Can you tell us a little about your entry that took second place in last year’s NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge? 

 Melinda: The prompts were tough. Our location was a cloud (the location prompt has to be the “predominant” setting for the story, so that was a head scratcher for sure), while the object was a pair of binoculars, and we were given only 48 hours to write. My story, titled “As Close as Your Heart,” was about a character named Shelby, who, after her mama dies, goes to live with a man whose identity she’s not even sure of. The story’s denouement is set in a hot air balloon. 

WOW: Very cool! I'm not sure I could have tackled that prompt myself, so kudos to you and your win! What was your favorite part of teaching college English for 25 years? 

Melinda: I think what I miss most since retiring is the engagement. I mostly taught first-year students, and they invariably started the semester thinking they were already pretty good critical thinkers, but in reality, what most of them had been taught to do for twelve years was memorize and regurgitate what they’d been told. I loved watching them discover that they had minds of their own and something worth saying—and I loved the way class discussions could spark some unique and genuine critical thought. I divided each of my classes into groups, usually of five students each; the class would read an assigned piece as homework—pretty standard procedure—and then in class I’d distribute a series of two or three questions for each group to discuss among themselves. That is, each group got different questions. When each group shared their thoughts with the class, they were not just regurgitating the professor’s ideas and perceptions, but their own—and the whole class was encouraged to engage. It was a lot more fun and interesting, for both them and me, than straight lecturing. 

WOW: We’d love to know more about the novel you’re trying so hard to avoid editing. Could you share any details of it with us? 

Melinda: I’m happy to! Eighteen Crossroads is a family saga that begins when Aniela Bobrowska, eighteen, voyages to America in 1907 to help care for her recently widowed uncle’s children. She intends to stay only a year, but after her uncle refuses to send her home, her one year stretches into seventy. Throughout her life, Aniela strives to encourage her progeny to embrace their Polish heritage, but in the American “melting pot,” this proves to be a challenge. As the novel follows the arc of her personal American dream, each chapter recounts a single “crossroads moment” in one of her descendants’ lives that affects her dream’s trajectory. Early versions of several chapters have received some recognition, which is gratifying and which motivates me to want to get this project finished!

WOW: That's a great elevator pitch. We can't wait to learn more and see that novel come to fruition. Keep up the amazing work!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Thanks for doing this interview and for providing a link to Melinda's essay. It was quite a moving essay.

Melinda--You found out the same thing I did when writing essays: the best ones are written in a meandering way. It's not a straight path. When drafting and revising, you experience unexpected twists and turns.

Great essays take on a life of their own. The essays themselves dictate where they go.

Congratulations, and good luck with your manuscript. I have a feeling at some point, we'll see that manuscript has turned into a published novel. ;)

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Renee I enjoyed reading this interview. Melinda congratulations. Your essay was such a poignant one. Good luck with your novel and all of your writing endeavors.

Evelyn Krieger said...

Congratulations, Melinda. Your beautiful and heart-felt essay resonated with me as I, too, was unable to be with my father in his tragic end. Writing about grief and loss has helped with healing, connection, and growth. These essays have found a home, including WOW. Good luck with your writing,

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