AWP2019: Writing the Personal Through Fiction and Nonfiction, Sponsored by Grove/Atlantic, Hugo House, and Seattle Arts & Lectures

Panel Participants: Terese Marie Mailhot, Pam Houston, G. Willow Wilson

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: Join three highly acclaimed, award-winning writers—New York Times bestselling author Terese Marie Mailhot, New York Times notable author Pam Houston, and Hugo Award-winner G. Willow Wilson—as they discuss the rewards and challenges of depicting culture, landscape, trauma, and family across genres.


Rebecca Hoogs, Associate Director of Seattle Arts and Lectures, introduced and moderated a panel of three authors who have received significant awards and distinctions for their work. They read excerpts from their books, selected to illustrate how they deliver personal story. Terese Marie Mailhot read from her Heart Berries: A Memoir; G. Willow Wilson, from her recent novel, The Bird King; and Pam Houston, from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. The readings evoked painful stories and were followed by a discussion about what drove the authors to create them and what keeps these writers going.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir describes the Native American experience, inspired by lessons passed on by her grandmother and mother, women’s stories and struggles that she observed as a child and later experienced herself as a mother, student, and wife. Her descriptions of residential schools and the abuse perpetrated demonstrated not only the trials but also the resilience and strength of Native women. To create these stories, she took words that simultaneously build and destroy by identifying binaries: the black and white, the good and bad, juxtaposed to invert meaning. “Story is revolution,” she said. “It is about returning to the earth, returning to origins.”

Mailhot honors the self through ceremony that is not romanticized or “fun” but becomes a celebration, simple and unadorned. As a child, she was told by the Elders to try to run to the telephone pole, and then to the next one, and again. From this basis grew her core messages: leading life, getting the body stronger, and creating beauty in one’s life.

As a method of working, G. Willow Wilson harnesses anger that results from trauma for the personal benefit it delivers. Her story takes place in Granada, Spain, before the city collapsed, and depicts how Hasan and Fatima escape the impending danger by living at the Alhambra Palace and using imaginary doors to escape. Along with creating captivating descriptions, the author’s harnessed anger has become a tremendous asset in life, she said. It becomes a powerful agent of strength: “Anger gets a bad rap as it relates to fear but together, fear and anger are often contained by women.” In storytelling the author uses both to articulate the self. Wilson likens telling a story to building a map, a way to elucidate an idea with pictures that a reader needs to receive, a transmission that nourishes.

Pam Houston used her experience of purchasing a sizable homestead to respond to the editor who challenged her to write an adventure. In her reading, one character recognizes that she had given an inordinate amount of power to men in the past and she has to try many ways to heal the self. Houston realizes that the setting of her ranch becomes the metaphor of her life, as in her book, Deep Creek, the human/animal connection becomes strong. She approaches writing through honoring the physical world, finding the language that sings the beauty and physicality of nature and our surroundings. A parallel emerges in this book between the grief and pain of a traumatic childhood and humankind’s evolving destruction of our planet. She sees her book as a narrative of healing, an expression of holding the grief about hurt in the everyday tasks of caring for the animals and the land, and that becomes a song to the beauty of the world.

For a long time, the condemnation and shame about the abuse she suffered were not apparent to Houston. During her mature years she came to know that “being alive is all about being wrong a whole lot of times.” She believes that in her earlier years she was too deep into fear to realize that, but she has no regrets. She states that she has been mothered by nature, not by parents.

The panelists offered advice to demystify the process of writing. They acknowledged that in that process every author encounters individual struggles, unique to them. No rules apply to all. They urged each person to find what works best for her/him and not worry about rules. As an example, the typical advice of not editing as you write may not work for everyone. The comment that rang true to this writer was that we need to be patient in writing about trauma, giving it the time it needs and not trying to force it out in order to “get done.” The right words and insights take time to process and find. These authors, successful members of the writers’ tribe, spoke openly and freely to this audience, sharing generously of their experience, for which we are grateful.


Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA. She holds a BA in psychology and a master’s in social work. She has published in “Voices,” “Persimmon Tree,” “Assay,” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry chapbook. She is author of Return to Thessaloniki, currently being released in the Greek language in Greece.


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