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Saturday, April 06, 2024

Interview With Phyllis Unterschuetz, Runner Up in the Quarter One 2024 Nonfiction Essay Contest

Congratulations to Phyllis Unterschuetz of Lithia Springs, Georgia and to all of the other contestants and winners of the WOW! Women on Writing Quarter 1 2024 Essay Contest! 

Today I'm excited to interview Phyllis Unterschuetz. Before we get to our interview, make sure you check out her essay, "And the Trees Shall Hold You," first. Then come on back! But first, here's a bit about Phyllis: 

Phyllis Unterschuetz is the co-author of Longing: Stories of Racial Healing (Bahá’í Publishing). She is currently writing her second book, a memoir about finding the courage to tell the abortion story she kept secret for over 50 years. Phyllis was the winner of Tell Your Story’s Spring 2023 Writing Contest. Her work has been published in Science of Mind Magazine, longlisted for the 2023 Amy MacRae Award for Memoir, and nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She has three grown children and one in the spiritual world, six grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. Phyllis and her husband live just outside Atlanta in Lithia Springs, Georgia. Visit her website at

 …………..interview by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto 

WOW: Phyllis, I loved your essay submission but even more so I enjoyed an opportunity to get to know you better! You are so open and honest - qualities I admire in a friend! I’m sure readers will agree, you are a gem! Let’s get down to it; what were you wanting readers to gain from "And the Trees Shall Hold You"? 

PHYLLIS: I hope my readers will think about how they might tap into the power of connectedness when they find themselves in challenging situations. I believe we humans are dual-natured beings—souls who are temporarily associated with physical bodies. We thrive when we are able to draw strength from our connections to each other, to the earth, and to Spirit, including the souls of those who have passed on to the spiritual realm. My experiences at the cemeteries felt magical and mysterious, but they were also very concrete. I grew physically stronger when I imagined myself connected to the trees’ root systems. I’d be thrilled if my readers can have similar experiences. 

WOW: You do an excellent job using your writing to help readers connect to your story - this is truly an impressive skill and quite a gift! Speaking of impressive, you have an impressive bio. What is your latest/current project? 

PHYLLIS: I am writing a memoir about finding the courage to tell my abortion story after trying to keep it secret for over 50 years. It took me a year and a half to finish the first draft, and now I’m six months into my first round of revisions. I’m struggling with the structure, particularly with figuring out my opening scene. I seem to change my mind once a week. But it’s not just the craft issues that are making this book so challenging. 

My first book, which I co-authored with my husband, was a collection of personal essays about healing from our unconscious racial conditioning. We were very transparent in describing how we’d been programmed as white people to see race. We laid bare our souls, hearts, and minds. We dug deep into our vulnerable psyches. I thought that was the hardest thing I’d ever write, but I was wrong. What I’m writing now is much harder. 

I’ve had to search out memories I had repressed and experience them all over again. I ended up working with a therapist for nearly a year when I first started writing the story (which, by the way, is a very smart thing to do if you’re going to write a memoir about a traumatic event.) I’m finally healed enough, and have enough emotional distance, to move beyond getting the story out to crafting something I hope will be beautiful. 

WOW: As a writer who struggles with trauma and healing, I love your insight as far as therapy goes. Thank you. There's so much more I want to know - I can't ask these questions fast enough. What is your history with writing contests? Tell us what prompted you to submit to this particular contest? What would you like to tell other authors concerning contests and submitting their work? 

PHYLLIS: Writing contests are so alluring! I think we all want to see our names next to the word “Winner.” The first contest I entered was the Amy McRae Award for Memoir in 2022. I didn’t place, but I was hooked. Then last spring I wrote an essay about how I was teased in college for being fat, and I entered it into the Tell Your Story Spring Essay contest. I thought I must be out of my mind to put something so raw and revealing into the world for everyone to see, but then it won 1st Place and I didn’t care who read it! 

I entered this WoW contest because I love how you support women writers and I admire the pieces I’ve read by the winners of your previous contests. I figured that placing in a Women on Writing contest would look great in my bio and would connect me with other women who share my goals and values. 

My advice to other authors is submit, submit, submit! I’ve entered a lot of contests since that first one, and most of the time I don’t win. But each submission makes my writing a little better. So whether you’re submitting to contests or for publication in a journal, keep at it! Don’t get discouraged and give up, because you never know when a judge will see the value of your essay and vote it to the top. And it’s such a thrill when your work is recognized like that. 

WOW: Sounds like contests are a great support for you - or at least an encourager - but who is your support? What have you found to be most supportive in your writing life as well as in life in general? You are clearly a nurturer of others. What role has journaling and/or writers groups played in your life? What advice do you have for others during turbulent times? What works or doesn’t work for you when it comes to dealing with stress and the pressures of everyday life? Your answers are so revealing, I want to ask ALL the questions!

PHYLLIS: My spiritual beliefs are my greatest support, both in my daily life and in times of stress. I belong to the Bahá’í Faith, which you probably guessed from my essay. I’ve been a Bahá’í for 56 years, and I turn to its teachings for guidance, comfort, insight, strength, and peace. Prayer and meditation are part of my daily practice. 

I regularly call on loved ones who have died, especially my mom, when I need help or inspiration. Also I believe the child who died when I had the abortion has been helping me all along, even when I tried to pretend he didn’t exist. The story I’m writing is his story too, and he seems to be helping me write it. 

 My biggest human supporters are my husband, my siblings, my kids and their spouses, and the members of my writing groups. I would never have made it this far with my memoir, or in fact with any aspect of my life, without their constant encouragement and love. My children tell me that my abortion story is a part of their legacy. There are no words to describe how much strength it gives me to hear that. 

I belong to a group of eight women working with memoir coach Kim Douglas of Write2Unite. We focus on craft, lifting each other up, identifying what’s working in our writing, and discovering the heart and soul of our books. I also meet weekly with two other memoirists who never hesitate to tell me what’s not working in my writing. Both types of feedback are extremely valuable. I can’t imagine trying to write a book without a combination of loving support and honest critique. 

Moving my body and being in nature also help me deal with stress. When my brain locks up or I start to feel panicky, I bounce on my mini trampoline while listening to loud music, or I go for a walk at the state park near my house. So, back to what I was saying in my essay—when times are turbulent and life is stressful, you can find strength in your connection with other humans, with nature, and with the spiritual world.
WOW: Oh Phyllis - I could keep this up all day and our time is nearing an end - what’s next for you? What are your writing goals for 2024 and beyond? 

PHYLLIS: My 2024 goal is to submit my memoir manuscript to an agent or publisher by the end of this year. I’m not sure if I’ll try for one of the big five publishers or for a smaller traditional press. I’d also like to have several essays published in literary magazines by then. Once my book is out on submission, I’ll start working on an essay collection about my lifelong eating disorder, which was officially diagnosed last year. And there are more stories, so many stories I want to write. I’m turning 75 in two weeks, so I may have to speed up my process. 

WOW: Thank you again for your submission, your honesty, and your time. Congratulations on being one of our runner ups and we certainly look forward to reading more from you in the future and I hope we can interview again so I can ask more questions and gain valuable insight! You are truly a gift!

Interviewed by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto who just keeps on keeping on and can be found blogging and sharing on social media hashtag #raisingkidsandcattle #shelovesgodandsheridesgoodhorses #thankfulgratefulblessed 

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  1. Thank you Crystal and everyone at WoW! Women on Writing for this opportunity and for your valuable work with women writers!!

  2. Anonymous11:13 AM

    Kudos to my dear friend Phyllis. This is a wonderful interview.

  3. Anonymous11:58 AM

    A truly talented memoirist, Phyllis is a gift, both as a friend and a writer. Congratulations Phyllis on being chosen as a runner up.

  4. Anonymous9:21 PM

    So interesting. I can hardly wait for the book.

  5. Phyllis has a beautiful gift of writing. Looking forward to her next adventure!


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