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Sunday, May 07, 2023

Interview with Bethany Jarmul, Q2 2023 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest First Place Winner

Bethany Jarmul is a writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared in more than 50 literary magazines and been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Spiritual Literature. Bethany enjoys chai lattes, nature walks, and memoirs. Originally from West Virginia, she lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two young children. She’s currently working on two nonfiction chapbooks (one about growing up in West Virginia and one about motherhood) and a prose poem chapbook. Bethany also offers affordable editing services for writers. Connect with her at or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q2 2023 Creative Nonfiction contest! What inspired you to write your essay, “Cloudy?”

Bethany: Thank you so much! It's such an honor. Three things led to this essay. The first was what I was thinking and feeling at the time, wrestling with what it meant to be a stay-at-home mom and what kind of mother, what kind of person I wanted to be. When I have that internal wrestling feeling, that's usually a great starting place for an essay.

The second thing was a suggestion that my husband gave me. I like to write about nature, or even scientific phenomena as part of my writing. My husband is an engineer with a curious mind, so when I'm not sure what I want to write about I sometimes ask him: "What's something that you're curious about or that you think is amazing right now?" When I asked him this time he said: "Clouds. How a cloud can weigh thousands of pounds, more than a car, and yet hangs in the air above our heads." I agreed with him—incredible!

The third thing was taking Chelsey Clammer's class (I don't recall the name) about doing fun research as part of writing essays. I used to think of research as something that's boring, but I can honestly say that research has become fun for me.

WOW:  Research sounds fun to me too. I think you're referring to Chelsey's Curiosity and Creative Nonfiction class (which next starts on May 22nd). How did your essay develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process?

Bethany: I started with these two ideas—wrestling with motherhood/identity and exploring cloud science. I wrote out the main scenes and figured out a narrative arc for the piece, but while I was doing that I was also researching clouds and collecting the most interesting parts of the research. At some point, I realized I needed an organizing structure for this collage-type essay. The different types of clouds seemed like the perfect idea. I weaved the science facts and my personal narrative together, then broke it into the sections with the cloud-type titles. The very last thing I added was actually the first section of the piece—I realized I needed to introduce my mother and our relationship earlier. I'm very happy with how it turned out in the end.

WOW:  You're great at the hermit crab essay format, and the piece is a a nuanced look at motherhood, self and acceptance. Well done! What is your writing process like? Please describe a typical day.

Bethany: I love that you asked this question because I would like to dispel the myth that writers get up in the morning, sit down with coffee, and write for 8 hours. That just doesn't happen for most people.

My "full-time job" is being the primary caregiver for my 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter. I also have a part-time work-from-home job doing editing, and I often do freelance editing gigs and (sometimes) get paid for my creative writing. (Such as winning this contest... thank you very much!)

My typical day goes something like this:
Wake up, get everyone dressed & breakfast, answer emails & edit something, take my son to preschool, put my daughter down for a nap, write furiously, feed my daughter lunch, edit something, pick up my son from preschool, edit while doling out snacks, vacuum, cook dinner, spend time with hubby & kids, put the kids to bed, submit work to literary magazines and/or read something. Go to sleep.

WOW:  In your bio, you mention that you enjoy memoirs. Is there a particular memoir you think everyone needs to read, or a recent favorite?

Bethany: The memoir that made me fall in love with memoirs was when I read Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle as a teenager. I grew up in West Virginia, and part of her book takes place there, which was part of the draw—but mostly, I was just struck by how this incredible story was a true story. I've read dozens and dozens of memoirs since then, and honestly, I can't get enough.
What I love most about memoirs—whether full-length books or micro memoirs—is how one human shares a little piece of themselves with readers. The vulnerability, the exploration of truth, of finding the things that bind us together as humans even as our stories are all unique. I also love creative nonfiction that reads like poetry—with intense attention given to language.

WOW:  Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Bethany. Before you go, can you share a favorite writing tip or piece of advice with our readers?

1. Invest in your writing craft.
Take classes, read craft books, get feedback from a skilled editor. (I offer affordable editing services, more info on my website.)
2. Find community.
Join a writing group (or two), participate in the writing community by connecting on social media, going to readings, buying books and supporting other writers
3. Write, edit, submit, repeat.
If you're looking for where to submit your writing, check out Chill Subs!


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

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