Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Sierra Skye Gemma, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer.
NMAF: Earlier this year you won the National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer for a story called “The Wrong Way” (The New Quarterly), a personal essay and critical meditation on the stages of grief. Tell us a bit about how you developed this story and why you decided to submit it in the annual non-fiction writing competition from TNQ?
Sierra: The Wrong Way came out of an assignment in a Creative Non-fiction course with Andreas Schroeder. I had never written a personal essay before and when I started I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say. Not exactly, anyway. I looked up Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief because I thought it would explain my experiences. I thought I could structure my essay according to the stages, but I realized that Kübler-Ross’s theory didn’t apply to my life at all. My essay then developed as a sort of antagonistic call-and-response with conventional grief theories.
I sat and wrote it in two sittings, straight through from beginning to end. I didn’t move things around after that and I barely edited it. That said, I had bits and pieces of it already written. Little vignettes that I hadn’t known what to do with before, like the story of buying my son the fish and aquatic frog. I had also taken extensive notes when my sister died and I wrote down lots of dialogue. Maybe that sounds weird; maybe not, if you’re a writer. But what do you do with a short “scene” between siblings that, when read on its own, seems to make light of the death of another sibling? Well, I guess you build an elaborate home in which it can live. The Wrong Way was that home for many of my disjointed experiences with grief.
I submitted the essay to The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest because Andreas Schroeder told me to submit it to a contest (and not through the slush pile of regular submissions); he thought the essay was good enough to win. The New Quarterly’s personal essay contest seemed like the obvious choice. The lesson here? Always listen to Andreas Schroeder. Continue reading