Q&A with Marcia Aldrich, 2011 AWP Award Series Winner for Creative Nonfiction
Sarah Katz | April 2016
Companion to an Untold Story (University of Georgia Press), selected by Susan Orlean
What are you working on right now?
I’ve created a collection of essays by contemporary women writers who have been instrumental in moving the essay to the center of the literary stage. Ever since I began editing Fourth Genre I have felt the baffling lack of such a collection, given women’s stellar accomplishments in the form. Last year I put together Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, which champions the diversity of women’s approaches to the essay. I am happy to say I found a sympathetic reader for it in Lisa Bayer, director of the University of Georgia Press, and the book is in production, scheduled for arrival late in the fall of this year.
I continue to write and publish essays of my own. I’m putting together a collection of them, gathered around the screens between women, called She and Me: Essays on the Structure of Trouble. I’m also at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during my college years. “Float,” a first taste of Haze, will appear this spring in Normal School.
How have you or your writing changed since you received the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2011?
Winning the award confirmed my belief that bringing a project to fruition can be a long process and that having faith in my instincts is crucial. It took years for me to find the right form for Companion to an Untold Story, and there were many times when I thought the book was doomed and should be put in a box in the attic. I have realized that a writer has to give birth to herself over and over.
It’s easy to mistake quick assessments that a book isn’t commercially viable as a measure of its literary worth. We shouldn’t confuse the two approaches to evaluation. The AWP award is decided by judges who aren’t driven by market slots and niches. Having Companion selected fortified my sense of what is valuable in writing, in my writing. I think often about what Virginia Woolf said nearly a century ago: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”
How has the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction affected your career?
It’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t get into print! A book about the suicide of an obscure man wasn’t going to draw a mass audience under any circumstances, but I’m heartened to have heard from serendipitous readers who value it. They have been remarkably insightful, generous, and penetrating.
What advice might you have for writers submitting to the AWP Award Series?
The usual advice—don’t submit a manuscript prematurely; make sure it reflects your mature work—is good advice. You can build your book around an idea or central event, experience, question, problem, or theme, as Sarah Einstein builds Mot around homelessness. Personal memoir or essay combined with research and formal innovation gathers readers. The AWP Award Series is judged much more on literary value than commercial viability. This is both a tremendous blessing but it is also a challenge: it demands that writers consider the form and leave their mark.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She is a past editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and her edited collection Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women will be published by The University of Georgia Press.