Interview with Mhari McCole: Creative Nonfiction Q1 2024 Third Place Winner

Sunday, February 18, 2024
Mhari’s Bio:
Mhari is a theatre-maker and teacher from Cambridge, England, where she lives with her partner and son. She produces, directs and devises plays for the stage, and she won an Offie (Off West End Theatre Award) in 2020. She worked for a number of years with Menagerie Theatre Company in Cambridge, and she has produced work for theatres across the UK, including Cambridge Arts Theatre and Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Mhari turned to writing stories and creative non-fiction quite recently, and she has been inspired by the incredible WOW Women on Writing community. 

If you haven't done so already, check out Mhari's award-winning essay "Falling" and then return here for a chat with the author. 

WOW: Congratulations on placing third in the Q1 2024 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your essay and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote? 

Mhari: I have always loved writing, but I have always found it difficult to write at length, so I have lots of unfinished pieces of work that I have started over the years and then left. Then, I heard about a fantastic flash fiction course, which I signed up for, and it was right up my street. I loved the brevity of the genre and the challenge of conveying as much as possible in as few words of possible. 

Then one day, I was playing with my young son in the living room, and he took a daring leap across the furniture, and I felt that sudden jolt of anxiety parents feel when their children are learning about how their bodies work in space. I held my breath as I watched him take off, wondering whether he would keep his footing on the furniture or fall flat on his face. Also, in that moment, I thought about my dad, and how it must have felt for him once he knew he was falling from a window, and my mum, as she watched. As my son came to a safe landing, I saw him steady himself with his fingers splayed out, gripping hard, and again, I thought of my dad, paralysed, with his fingers frozen in position as his spine broke. My dad's fingers on one hand like a claw and the fingers on the other hand splayed out and flat. The way in which my son's movements had triggered corresponding thoughts about my dad lingered with me for the rest of the day. It was such a vivid experience in such an everyday and simple event. Later, I was compelled to write down my thoughts and, being so inspired by the flash fiction form, this personal memory naturally developed into a tightly structured piece of writing. The way in which watching my son brought me back to my dad's accident dictated the content of the piece, and I ended up with an essay that stretched across the generations in very few words. 

WOW: Thank you for sharing that insight into your process, and, wow, what vivid memories your son’s leaping evoked for you! What did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay? 

Mhari: I learned that my inner world is still very connected to the tragedy that happened in the early days of my parents' marriage and that it colours many ways in which I see and relate to the world all these years later. Being a mother myself makes me wonder how my mum coped looking after a paralysed husband and a new baby at the same time and how her experience of family took on a direction that she never expected and redefined what family means for her and me. 

WOW: It’s so interesting to hear about all of these intergenerational connections you’re making as you write and reflect on your family’s history. Your bio states that you’ve worked for the theater in a variety of capacities. In what ways do you believe your theater work inspires your creative nonfiction or vice versa? 

Mhari: I love all sorts of theatre, but theatre based in truth is the type of theatre that leaves a lasting impression on me. I am drawn to exploring what it means to be a human being and what paths life can take. I am fascinated by how human experience is shaped by environments and the choices people make. Also, I am interested in forum theatre, where theatre presents issues to an audience and makes space for that audience to respond to, engage in and ultimately shape a performance in the moment. Great insight and thoughts that challenge and provoke can emerge in a magical way when performers and an audience creatively explore together. I have had a similar experience with my creative non-fiction writing, and it has surprised me because writing is such a solitary endeavour; however, once readers engage and share their thoughts and feelings about your piece of work, it enables you to see your work in a different way and from a different perspective. It was a wonderful experience for me to read comments made by the judges in response to my creative non-fiction essay entry, and I was very moved by knowing the phrases and images responded to the most. I didn't think my work would have such an impact. 

WOW: I like the connection you make between performers and audiences creatively exploring together and writers and audiences interacting. You’re so right that writing feels like a solitary activity, but ideas don’t come from a void and audiences interpret writing in a variety of ways that keep that interactivity or exploration going. Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you? 

Mhari: I have been inspired by a number of the creative nonfiction writers whose work has been published on the WOW website. Their competition entries have shown how bold, creative and honest writing can be, and how in reach of a readership and publication work can be if you engage with a community. Also, as I said, I am inspired by theatre that is based in truth. However, I do love documentaries as well, and I am fascinated by the work of Louis Theroux. He is very popular in the UK, but I would be interested to find out what Americans think of him because he has made a lot of documentaries about groups of people and organisations in America - although he tends to seek out the groups with the most unusual lifestyles and with the most extreme views! 

WOW: I’m so glad you brought up theater and documentaries as subgenres of creative nonfiction – I hadn’t thought of in that way before. If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would it be? 

Mhari: Do more of it. Don't listen to your inner critic and finish some of those pieces that are half written! 

WOW: Great advice! Anything else you’d like to add? 

Mhari: The discovery of the WOW! Women on Writing website has encouraged me to be brave and submit some of my writing into a competition. I am over the moon to have achieved third place. Thank you for your support! 

WOW: You are welcome! Thank you for sharing your writing with us. Happy writing! 

Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, founder and editor-in-chief of Sport Stories Press, which publishes sports books by, for, and about sportswomen and amateur athletes and offers developmental editing and ghostwriting services to partially fund the press. Engage on Twitter or Instagram @GreenMachine459.


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