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MFA students earn top honors

February 21, 2008

MFA students earn top honors

Amy Andrews remembers it was a Saturday when the phone rang. Her daughter was practicing piano and her husband was hiking the trails of a nearby nature park.

When she answered the phone, Lee Gutkind, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, identified himself and said he was calling about the first-ever “Creative Nonfiction MFA Program-Off” contest. He was calling to inform Andrews she’d won the grand prize.

“I was very composed,” she said. “I told him he made my day. I got off the call, and then there was screaming – I think I frightened my daughter.”

It was the first writing contest Andrews had ever entered. She is currently in her final year of PLU’s master of fine arts in creative writing degree program, the Rainier Writing Workshop, working hard to complete her final manuscript.

Andrews was only notified of the contest one week prior to the submittal deadline. Realizing this was the only year she was eligible – it was only open to current MFA students – she dug through her drafts and found an older essay.

“I spent a day revising it – I’m the mother of two young kids, and I had to pick them up 3 p.m. So I worked until 2:30 p.m. and that was as much time as I had,” she explained. “I didn’t expect to win.”

Simply submitting the essay felt like a victory. “I felt like I really punched through,” she said.

Her essay, titled “Cantata 147: The Final Chorale,” is about the suicide of her middle school band director. Andrews was a 10th grader at the time, and said she began writing the piece to sort through her confusion. Within the essay, she weaves together her band director’s suicide, pieces of Bach’s Cantata 147 and facts about Bach.

As the grand prize winner, Andrews’ essay will appear in the anthology “Best of Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 3,” to be published next year. She also read her piece at the Ding Dong Lounge in New York City during the Association of Writer and Poets Conference in January.

Andrews said she’s been slowly circling toward a career in writing, prioritizing the task more and more each year. She credits the Rainier Writing Workshop’s assistant director, Judith Kitchen, with giving her the courage and confidence to take the plunge.

“Judith Kitchen is entirely to blame for all of this,” Andrews laughed. “It’s Judith, all Judith. There are tons of people who would say the same thing. Judith is an entirely generous and encouraging teacher of writing … I’m her groupie.”

Andrews isn’t the only current student to receive accolades. Elea Carey’s story “First Love, Last Love” was chosen for the collection “18 Lies and 3 Truths,” and Mark McCaig’s poem “Abundance” won the Bay to Ocean Writer’s Workshop contest.

“First Love, Last Love” is about how you give everything for love, regardless of what it does to you, Carey explained. It is her first published work of fiction. The collection, published by Story Quarterly, features 18 stories and three essays written by today’s master storytellers (and a few Pulitzer Prize winners) and the best up-and-coming talent.

“T.C. Boyle, Richard Bausch, Lorrie Moore,” Carey said, naming several of the writers with stories in the collection. “These are the writers I was reading 25 years ago when I was deciding I wanted to be a writer, and now we’re between the same pages? It was a dream come true.”

Like Andrews, Carey is in her final year of the MFA program. As she’s been working on her thesis over the past several months, she said she’s realized she is a writer because the task of writing has become increasingly difficult.

“I’ve fallen in love with this difficulty,” she said. “This is the profound, seasoned love of shared hardship, of enduring and prevailing.”