By Lorna M. Hartman
Karen Maner, a senior in the Master of Fine Arts degree program, won first place in the creative nonfiction category in a national writing competition.
The Intro Journals Project contest is held annually by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It also awards prizes for poetry, fiction and other categories.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs website said, “The Intro Journals Project is a literary competition for the discovery and publication of the best new works by students currently enrolled in AWP member programs.”
Maner’s nonfiction story, “Hugo,” focused on her late pet fish of the same name as a literary device to explore the sometimes fine line between kindness and cruelty.
“It’s also about whether or not we can ever really have a responsible relationship with animals where ownership is involved,” Maner said.
Maner’s winning story will be published in the Colorado Review, which is carried by university and public libraries in the U.S. It receives more than 9,000 manuscript submissions each academic year. Maner is in rare company at the Colorado Review, which has published work by writers such as Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings.
Maner’s thesis adviser, Assistant Professor Rachel Toor, said, “This is such big news for Karen and for us. She basically won the biggest national award for creative writing for graduate students.”
Maner said, “I heard about an incident in Gainesville, Ohio, with an animal hoarder who had exotic animals who let them go. They ran through the community and the police ended up killing most of them. It got me thinking about our relationships with our pets, because that’s what these animals were to these people.”
The piece evolved over time, according to Maner. The end piece was not so much about what happened in Gainesville as it was about a couple of years Maner spent working at a pet store and how her feelings about owning a pet changed over the course of that time.
“The piece is supposed to be — parts of it are supposed to be funny, too. It sounds like a downer, but it’s not. I try not to be too serious or depressing,” Maner said.
Maner’s first draft was written during her first quarter at Eastern in a workshop taught by Associate English Professor Natalie Kusz. Maner rewrote it that summer and then brought the new version to another workshop with Kusz.
“I also worked on it with my thesis adviser, Rachel Toor,” said Maner. “We had private meetings and talked about some possible directions I could take it in.”
Maner is currently working on this piece as part of her master’s thesis. “Rachel [Toor] wants me to submit it the first week of May,” she said.
Toor said that Maner is one of the most professional, strong-minded and interesting thinkers the English department has seen.
“She does stuff that’s unexpected and extraordinary and also technically beautiful,” Toor said. “She writes about weird, quirky things. It’s never just provocative; it’s always getting at some bigger issue. She uses something little to talk about something big.”
After graduating in June, Maner wants to continue traveling internationally as she has done in the past and to integrate her writing talent with social causes she is passionate about.
“I’m really interested in writing social action pieces to raise consciousness, to write about things that people don’t always think about,” said Maner. “I think this time, instead of going overseas to teach, I’d get involved some sort of nonprofit humanitarian organization.”
Toor said that Maner’s win put Eastern’s MFA program on the national scene. “Many of our graduate students become successful writers,” Toor said. “She’s one of the people I’m really expecting to see a book from in the next few years.”
But until then, Maner will continue to hone her story and her craft at Riverpoint, beating the stress by playing Tomb Raider and eating chicken pho from Vien Dong downtown. “Right now, I’m pretty locked into thesis,” she said.