Friday, January 14, 2011

Amy Pengra, author of the essay First Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, shares her thoughts with us about Fits, Starts & Matters of the Heart, and essay writing.

How long have you been writing essays?

I’d say college when I studied a variety of writing styles and began keeping a journal, which has been a great tool for mining personal essays (and pointless rants for the blog market). But I didn’t fully understand or embrace the structure of personal essay until about five years ago after taking classes and working with my writing group.

When and where was your first essay published?

In 1994, Fate Magazine published a story I wrote in college about the ghost in our family lake house. Reading the story now makes me a little nauseous, but I was elated at the time. Fate is a small pub that prints “true reports of the strange and unknown.” After my story ran, I took a 12-year break to focus my career on less strange and unknown topics like advertising and marketing.

How did it feel when you discovered your essay had been chosen for inclusion in this book?

Amazing! I couldn’t believe it. A fellow FLX member and friend told me about the contest, but I’d forgotten. Then she reminded me again on the final day submissions were due, so I sent the story on a whim with very low expectations. I feel so fortunate to be the company of such well-established and talented writers. I was also excited that FLX chose my suggested title for the book – that was unexpected and very exciting, too!

Tell us a bit about the essay published Fits, Starts & Matters of the Heart. What is it about and why did you write it?

The story is about my first love, first time and first heartbreak – all three milestones occurred together creating a neat little story package. I’d thought of writing about the experience many times because the memory was so vivid and it had a significant impact on my life. Plus, I believed the story would be relatable. But I did more thinking (read: watching television) than writing until I was inspired to write the piece for an essay-reading event that I attend (and read for) in LA where I live. Each month’s show has a specific theme, which prompt a variety of ideas. The themes that prompted this story were “Surprise!” and “Choices”.

Had you tried the essay market before?

Outside of this book and my post-college published story, no – but I plan to give it a try since I have several unfinished essays sitting on my computer looking for homes.

What does it mean to you to be published in this anthology? 

Like many writers, I’ve dreamed of being published since I was a kid sitting in front of my parents’ typewriter writing “my first book” (which was essentially a series of made up phone conversations with the boy I had a crush on in third grade.) So having a story of mine in this amazing book is truly a dream come true. To be included with such talented writers is validating and also a little frightening…because this means I could do more writing and doing more is scary! I’ve been writing essays as a hobby the last several years, but have been reluctant to try submitting any of my work without clips under my belt. I have to say that FLX and the fantastically supportive members have really inspired me to try despite my lack of experience – I would never have entered the contest without them. I couldn’t be more thrilled and grateful.

Do you have any words of wisdom to share with someone who says "I don't have anything to write about."?

All writers think that from time to time (or daily as the case may be). But the key is putting pen to paper and letting the words flow – no editing, no rereading – just go with whatever is on your mind even if it starts with your grocery list and turns into a rant about the economy and how kids today don’t appreciate life like you did when you were young. Don’t judge. Releasing your inner critic is tough, but just let those “this is terrible/you are terrible” thoughts (these are samples of mine) go and keep writing. I think the key to finding your voice and what you want to say is being honest and authentic on the page and then patient with the process. All writing requires re-writing. And more rewriting. Getting to the heart of your story can take several drafts, but it’s worth the process to dig out the truth. I love this quote about writing from E.M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s true, so go find out!

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