Interview with Carolyn Campbell, First Place Winner of Q2 2024 WOW! Creative Nonfiction Contest

Sunday, April 28, 2024
Carolyn Campbell is a journalist, photographer, nonfiction writer, and award-winning multimedia artist whose work has been featured in galleries, national publications, and statewide initiatives. After living in some of America’s most remote regions for the last six years, her upcoming debut book, Life at the Edge of the World, explores the grit and grace of rural towns struggling to survive. When she’s not in Oregon, Carolyn is following a story in her tiny home on wheels named Missy May.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q2 2024 Creative Nonfiction essay competition! What prompted you to enter the contest?

Carolyn: Last year I submitted a piece to the WOW contest and added the option to get feedback. I didn’t make it through the first round. It didn’t matter. The feedback was so spot on I felt like I had won. It was the clearest, most direct and supportive critique I’d ever received. This year, I entered for the critique. So, thanks for offering this much appreciated service!

WOW:  Glad that you had such a great experience with our critique add on! “Blinking Lessons” is a powerful essay and the list format worked so well here. What inspired you to write this particular piece?

Carolyn: Last fall I was taking a fractured narrative writing class with a 300-word limit. The form forced me to write directly into action. The first words that tumbled out of my pen were, When your dad asks you to come back east because your mother has lost her mind in ways it can no longer be found, don’t blink. Pack. Fly. Drive. The discordant trauma of my family lay there, bare on the page. As I wrote more, I focused on a staccato rhythm and rhyme to link the fragments that for years hadn’t made sense. Using a ‘lesson guide’ format provided a structure for quickly setting the scene to reveal my father’s growing cancer and my mother’s descent into Alzheimer. By starting with simple instructions that felt safe, the form allowed me to drop the reader into split-second vignettes that captured ruptured, explosive elements of my family’s trauma. The action of blinking became the perfect metaphor to bring the reader from the past to the present through graphic fast snippets of confusion, memory, forgiveness, and reclamation.

WOW: Do you have any thoughts or advice for writing about difficult things?

Carolyn: This is such a great question. I think we all enter this arena each in our own way. For me, I have to be willing to write the hard parts and own my truth. Because it can feel frightening to be so vulnerable and exposed, I think it’s crucial we honor our individual process. This piece took me a few years before I could step back enough and allow myself to feel the story, but not get consumed by emotions or a sense of shame.

Once I find the thread of a story, I think about the rhythm of the sentences and the pulse of the words. What should be sharp? What calls to be languid? Especially in a ‘fractured’ format, cadence and form give me a structure to help contain the piece.

One last thing, for me to feel safe putting it out into the world, I have a support system of writers, teachers and coaches who I trusted will give me emotional support and structural feedback.

WOW:  Tell us about your upcoming book, Life at the Edge of the World. Anything you can share about the writing process, or how the journey of writing this book went for you?

Carolyn: Life at the Edge of the World (my working title) has been in the making for seven years. In 2017 I started a two-month civics project with urban high school journalism students in Portland, Oregon. I called the project Looking For America. Students could send me anywhere they wanted me across the nation to interview people about issues they thought relevant to our current social crisis. I would send them videos and they would write stories about the women and their own reaction to the videos.

When an all-girls school sent me to Mississippi to find out what it was like to be a woman living in a state that had never (at that point) had a woman in a high level of office, my world shifted. Prior to this journey, I knew little about rural America. I was raised suburban. In my adult life I live an inner city life. All I knew about rural were the stop-n-go moments getting gas in small towns on the way to backpacking destinations.

Diving into the underbelly of our nation, this sojourn turned increasingly personal. Within days I found myself facing my own reckoning with cultural bias and unexpected connections with my own rural roots. Two months turned to six, then nine. By year three I’d sold my house, left my city life, and taken on the challenge to live on the income of a rural woman for a year. This life is NOT for the faint of heart.

Raw, candid, inspiring, self-effacing and at times heart wrenching, Life at the Edge is a reckoning with my own ancestral past and the crisis of the class, culture and race wars today.

With each phase of this sojourn, I’d explore different writing modalities in order to deepen my understanding of the issues, tease out my own truths, and engage a larger audience. Whether I was journaling, blogging, crafting digital stories, creating podcasts, or writing articles, my goal was to have intimate conversations about the social inequities, economic insecurities, and health disparities that threaten families and communities. I am now in the process of shaping those stories into a collection of essays, prose poems, and conversations that chronicle the grace, grit, and perseverance of women who live at the edge of hope and desperation.

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

Carolyn: One of the challenges I’ve had is finding teachers/coaches/editors who really get what I’m trying to write about. If you are writing outside the lines of immediately accessible storylines and finding yourself stuck, I’d recommend the following:

1) Explore multiple literary genres as well as multimedia and spoken word. Experiment. Stumble. Play. Expose yourself. Let your voice stammer and dance. By trying out different forms you give your true voice an opportunity to find its singular harmony … and discordance. For me, it’s this juxtaposition that makes for a compelling story.

2) Be picky about who you work with. There is a song inside you that longs to be sung. Work with those who push you to dig deep and craft stories in a voice that is unique to you.



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