Interview with Courtney Harler, First Place Winner of Q4 2022 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, October 23, 2022
Courtney Harler is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds an MFA from University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (2017) and an MA from Eastern Washington University (2013). Courtney is currently editor-in-chief of CRAFT, and has read and written for The Masters Review, Funicular Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and Chicago Literati in recent years. She also cohosts the literary podcast PWN's Debut Review, as well as instructs and edits for Project Write Now. For her creative work, Courtney has been honored by fellowships from Writing By Writers, Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Nevada Arts Council. Courtney’s work has been published in multiple genres in literary magazines around the world. Links to her publications and other related awards can be found at Find Courtney on Instagram @CourtneyHarler or on Twitter @CourtneyHarler1.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q4 2022 Creative Nonfiction essay competition! What inspired you to write your essay, “Be Still My Mother?”

Courtney: Well, first of all, my mother, who was a wonderfully wild woman. She was certainly unpredictable, both in delightful and harmful ways. She passed, as I make mention in the epistolary essay itself, on her birthday in 2010. I have felt compelled to write about her since, given we had unresolved issues between us. I first wrote this essay as a fictional short story, and though it garnered some attention in that form, the piece never placed in a contest or otherwise published. When I first workshopped the story, my mentor, Christian Kiefer, asked me why I wouldn't just submit the fiction as fact, since it remained largely true. I had my reasons then, which mostly involved not wanting to be held accountable to "truth" (much like my mother), but when my mother's birth/deathday came and went again this year, twelve years after the fact, I felt more able to face the facts, so to speak, of our troubled relationship. However, secondarily, I also felt the need to address the personal conviction that my remembered version of events couldn't definitively be called "truth," but only in as much as I could express such on the page. Even in this nonfiction piece, I wanted to allow room for different, or even competing, perspectives, especially from my siblings. My mother, I'm sure, would demand her say, if she were still able to respond in ways that could be voiced.

WOW: How did your essay develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process?

Courtney: I think I may have preempted this question a bit in my first answer, but honestly, this flash essay has been many years in the making. The short story, on which this essay is based, I believe I wrote in late 2015 or early 2016. I do remember sitting at my kitchen table, which is where I usually worked when my children were younger and I was still married, to sweat through that first flush of the first draft. The "story" felt very risky to me then, and I wasn't sure I'd be brave enough to bring it to my MFA workshop. I did, however, and it had unintended consequences. A classmate said at the start of the discussion, "This is a story about abuse," then ran from the room in tears. At that time, the idea of "abuse" had yet to occur to me. I sat flabbergasted, wondering what had just happened, as my instructor led the workshop back onto its path. I expanded the story after that workshop, tried to integrate the father figure more as a foil to the wily mother. I also tried to be braver about the work, sending it out to lit mags with support from my mentors. The story was shortlisted, but again, never published. I appreciated these nods toward the work, but grew frustrated that the story really couldn't find legs on its own merit. From the beginning, I knew one major issue was the story's accusatory tone, which does carry over somewhat into the epistolary essay. The "you" as a separate character from the "I" (and not as just an emanation of the narrator), as well as the pure confessional nature, also carried over when I decided to both factualize and condense the short story into a flash essay. I left out the more salacious details, focused on what made us both imperfectly human: the curdled tea, the kitchen scenes, and the objective correlatives that aligned us as fellow humans, as once mother and daughter and not simply adversaries--our poetry books, our shared jewelry, our unwashed dishes. Both the story and the essay poured forth from me, but the autofiction resisted truly fruitful revision until I distilled the storyline into fact. Or again, as near as I can come to "truth," which I think is indeed malleable, or at least open to interpretation, to paraphrase my mother.

WOW: I’m intrigued by your literary podcast PWN's Debut Review that you cohost, which is devoted to debut art and its creators. How did that come about, and do you have any favorite episodes you could recommend?

Courtney: I've been conducting email interviews for online lit mags and blogs for some years, first for Chicago Literati (sadly, now defunct) and then The Masters Review. I really enjoyed corresponding with authors, especially debut novelists, about their creative writing processes and publishing experiences. The interviews not only enriched my understanding of the craft, but also helped me feel more connected to the literary community after my graduation from my program at University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (formerly Sierra Nevada College). Sometime in 2019, I think, my good friend and fellow MFA graduate Ray Brunt invited me to get involved with his local writing studio, Project Write Now. I started teaching virtual writing classes for them, but all the while, I had this idea for a literary podcast in my head. Fall of 2020 got really weird for me--I left my longtime position at the local community college and sent myself on a writing/riding retreat at T.H.E. Ranch in Skull Valley, Arizona. During that retreat, when I cleared some headspace, I called Ray and pitched him the podcast. He, in turn, pitched the idea to PWN's Executive Director, Jennifer Chauhan. We assembled a team and spent a year in development. We launched about a year ago, and now we're in our fourth season. I've learned so much from all our wonderful guests, I don't think I could pick favorites, so I'll just mention the latest, our launch of Season Four with Chen Chen. Chen is a fantastic poet, and great fun to chat with about craft and culture. I hope your readers will take a listen. Up next, we'll have Courtney Maum, who's also flipping amazing.

WOW: As a writer, editor-in-chief of a literary magazine and more, you must be very busy. Are you working on any writing projects right now? What’s next for you?

Courtney: I am very busy, and I won't lie, finding dedicated time to devote to my work-in-progress is a struggle. In addition to my duties as editor in chief of CRAFT and cohost of PWN's Debut Review, I operate my writing coaching business, Harler Literary LLC. I'm also a coparent of a very active, very musical highschooler. While I'm tending to my many other responsibilities, I often forget to tend to myself. Recently, however, I have been the recipient of two grants from the Nevada Arts Council, allowing me to better prioritize my own creative projects. For the first grant, I completed revisions on a linked collection, which is now on submission with university and independent publishers. For the second grant, I'm currently redesigning my master's thesis, which will include "Be Still My Mother." I'm envisioning a hybrid collection of flash fiction, flash creative nonfiction, and short stories. Maybe even a prose poem or three. I am inspired to take this tack by Jennifer Battisti, another Vegas writer, who recently published a gorgeous hybrid collection called Off Boulder Highway. I once heard Jennifer read at The Writer's Block, my favorite local indie bookstore, and I've admired her work, and her approach to the work, since.

WOW: Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Courtney. Before you go, can you share a favorite tip or piece of advice related to creative nonfiction writing?

Courtney: My very first instinct is to say that I am "new" to creative nonfiction writing, as I have, in the past, mostly produced and published fiction, but in truth, the bulk of my previous work has primarily been autofiction. I still love the implied or inherent freedom from "truth" in fiction, even autofiction, but I'm finding, lately, that same sense of liberty on the page with nonfiction and poetry too. My best advice: Just write; don't worry about genre, or more specifically, the limitations "genre" attempts to place upon creativity. And if you can't write today, read. Read everything, and study what you read. I need this advice too--I sometimes read too quickly, and the words wash over me but pass from me too quickly. I can't help but think of my mother again, who left this world too soon. I memorialize her each day with my words.


For more information about our quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Essay contests, visit our contest page here.


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