interview by Marcia Peterson
WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q2 2022 Creative Nonfiction essay competition, and placing as a runner up with another piece as well! What prompted you to enter the contest?
Bethany: Thank you! I've been a fan of WOW for more than a year now. I was just starting to get serious about pursuing creative writing when I took a course through WOW in February of 2021. I have kept up with the social media, blog, contests, and courses ever since. I'd been dreaming of seeing my photo up there on the website as a contest winner, and decided I was finally ready to submit.
WOW: I loved both of your entries, "The Pause Button" and "Grocery List for My Parents' Visit." Can you tell us about the inspiration for these essays? Did you have the idea of the pause button as a symbolic image to start, or did that come as you began to write? And for the second piece, did you begin with the idea of using the list within an essay format?
Bethany: Both these essays began in the course that I took through WOW—Chelsey Clammer's "Not What But How." I continued to work on the essays after the class ended, then they sat on my laptop for a while while I was struggling through a difficult pregnancy.
For "The Pause Button," the events in that essay took place on Valentine's Day of 2021, which was during when I was taking Chelsey's class. When I found out I was pregnant and my husband came home and gave me flowers, I thought "this could be a movie!" But I didn't feel like a character in a romantic movie should feel. I felt conflicted, confused. It seemed like perfect material for an essay. The idea of ending with the pause button came to me as I was writing the essay and exploring the movie idea.
"The Pause Button" was also a craft experiment for me. I pulled in some research and examples of change from nature with the chameleon and the butterfly. The essay also switches from first-person narrative to second-person after the break, which is something that I was newly exploring. The second-person narrative allowed me, as the writer, to distance myself from the story while also helping the reader feel the immediacy of the moment and imagine themselves experiencing what the narrator was experiencing.
For "Grocery List for My Parents' Visit," it was my first time writing a "hermit crab essay," which is an essay that takes on the form of something else, in this case—a grocery list. Writing in this unique form freed me to write about difficult things that I would have had a hard time writing about in a straightforward chronological essay. Plus, it's just fun to play around with form and structure. I've found that using a specific structure frees me from the overwhelming feeling of the endless possibilities, the blank page.
WOW: As a busy mom, how do you find time to write? What works best for you?
Bethany: Yes, I have a toddler and an infant and work part-time from home. I don't have a quiet, clean place or a lot of time in which to write. But I decided to write anyway. I use whatever snippets of time I have, sometimes writing with a toddler on my lap or while nursing my infant. I watch a lot less TV and spend less time on social media, so that I can write and read more.
When I gave up my full-time job to stay home with my kids, at first, I felt like I was never going to accomplish anything else other than changing diapers. Eventually, I realized that for the first time in my adult life, my mind was free. I was busy and often physically exhausted, but my brain power could be harnessed toward writing in a way that wasn't possible when I was working full-time and mentally spent.
The other barrier to my writing was my mental health—anxiety and depression, especially during both of my pregnancies. I'm thankful for therapy, medication, and lots of prayers that have helped me get to a place where I feel confident enough to write again.
WOW: We're glad you were able to find you way back to writing! Are you working on any writing projects right now? What’s next for you?
Bethany: I'm going to continue writing and publishing essays, some poems, and maybe a short story or two. I enjoy all writing, but creative nonfiction is definitely my favorite. I'd like to publish a book—a collection of essays or a memoir-in-essays. I'd say that's my five-year goal. Anyone interested in keeping up with me and my work can follow me on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.
WOW: Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Bethany. Before you go, do you have any tips for our readers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?
Bethany: Do it! But read some books and take some classes first. This was my second time entering the WOW essay contest. The first time, my essay didn't even make it through the first round. I was a solid writer, but I didn't understand the essay form yet. I hadn't done my homework, and it showed.
What it takes to improve your writing—read, write, take classes, and find community. Joining a writing group and getting peer feedback on your work is so important. If you can't find one to join, create one.
If you are looking for some craft books on writing essays, here's some that I recommend:
You Can't Make This Stuff Up
Tell it Slant
Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction
Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction
For classes, I recommend WOW's writing classes, of course, also Creative Nonfiction and Writing Workshops.
"A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit.”– Richard Bach
For more information about our quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Essay contests, visit our contest page here.