Each year, a Wilkes creative writing graduate student demonstrating artistic promise is awarded the Norris Church Mailer Award. For 2011, that student is Virginia Grove. Here’s what Virginia had to say in a recent Q&A:
Congratulations, Virginia! You must be pleased about the win. When and how did you receive the news?
I can’t say I do anything the traditional way, and receiving the news wasn’t an exception. Having opted to take an extra semester to work on my analytical paper, I didn’t attend the June residency. I arrived home banquet-night Friday to hear a message on my machine asking if I was coming to the banquet. By that time, the banquet had already started. Later that same evening a few cryptic messages started appearing on my Facebook page, letting me know it might be a good idea to reach out to the program director and that “I really, really, should have been at this particular residency.” The messages, coupled with the phone message, caused me to worry I had done something wrong so Monday morning I rattled off a note of apology to our program director, Bonnie Culver. Later that evening, my mentor left me a message and after a short-lived round of phone tag, she let me know I had been awarded the 2011 Norris Church Mailer Scholarship. Unfortunately, we both missed the banquet and so we both missed the presentation of the award. I am truly, truly humbled to have been nominated and awarded the scholarship. Norris was and remains a true friend to the program and a mentor to all writers. She ultimately gave herself permission to follow her passion and to be passionate about that passion– what a wonderful model for writers to follow.
Tell us about your time in the Wilkes creative writing program. What was your capstone project and at what stage in the process is it now?
I am doing additional revisions to my capstone now and plan to take advantage of having another professional reading on the manuscript by the end of the program. I love the revision process more than the writing, even. BREAK tells the story of my search for identity in the pieces of life from the moment I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Through a collage of writing—grocery lists, poetry, dreams, and medical records, to name a few— I examine my past, my present, and my future as I navigate diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment and their effects on a self already broken. I come to see life as a frame into which pieces are placed creating the self-portrait each person adds to the collection of humanity.
Who did you work with and what did you learn most from your mentor?
I am so lucky to still be working with Christine Gelineau. When I initially began to pitch my capstone idea to the faculty in search of a mentor, it was Christine who seemed most excited and most involved in the idea… perhaps even more than I was. In tweaking the idea, she encouraged me to shoot for the bigger plans and she has continued to do so.
Christine has taught me many, many things–some purely academic, some truly life-giving. With saintly patience, she has guided me through the process by being simultaneously involved and distant. The distance is what allowed me to begin to trust in my own abilities… in my own style. She has brought me back from the bridge of self-criticism more than once. Without her guidance, I know the capstone wouldn’t have made it even this far because what she has taught me most is that people do believe in my abilities whether, as a chronic self-doubter, I can believe in those abilities or not, myself.
Think to way back when you first showed up on campus for your very first residency. Looking back on those initial days and thinking about your entire grad student experience, what advice might you offer to incoming students? Any tips for succeeding in the program?
This question could be a capstone in and of itself! Seriously though, there are so many tips and pieces of advice to share but I think, when boiled down, they all revolve around two ideas. (1) Be a part of the community– this means take advantage of the talent, experience, and drive of the faculty, your cohort, the program community, and be active in your own community as a writer. (2) Understand that sometimes moving forward is about standing still and be flexible with that understanding– when you end up frozen from so-called writer’s block or self doubt or if life decides it is going to get in the way of your pursuit of a degree, believe you will start again because you never stopped. When you are passionate about something, as I am about writing, sometimes the biggest steps forward come when it looks like you aren’t producing… when it’s all in your head and heart.
What are you working on now?
Other than the analytical paper and further revisions to my capstone, I am always writing poetry. As a matter of fact, I had a chance to work with a great group of high school students late last month at Misericordia University’s Literature Camp where a fresh set of writers refueled my creative tank… especially the one filled with poems. Otherwise, I am tossing around a ton of ideas. I’m always brainstorming. I am a chronic over-thinker. I have a children’s book rumbling around in my brain and really want to take a stab at writing a play.
There are opportunities on the horizon–some closer than that even–and I am both excited and terrified by the prospects. I am scheduled to teach my first class at Misericordia University this Fall semester, so I am actively working now preparing a syllabus and reading.
Congratulations and thanks to Virginia Grove for taking the time to chat with us!
Norris Church Mailer — Photo by Christina Pabst, NYTimes
Christine Gelineau and Virginia Grove – Thanks to Ginny’s Facebook