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Meet Emily Woodworth, 2021 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2021 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each.  Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2022 OLF applications will be posted in July 2021, and the deadline to apply will be in September 2021.

2021 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Emily Woodworth

Pronouns: She/her/hers


Emily Woodworth’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in JoylandCAROUSELAfter the PauseInkwell Journal, and others. She earned MFA in Writing (emphasis in Image + Text) from California Institute of the Arts.

Q&A with Literary Arts

What are your sources of inspiration?
Is “everything” too broad an answer? Probably. I tend to think less of it as “inspiration” and more as “obsession,” or perhaps “hauntings.” My obsessions follow me through the world because they are self-selecting. They gain my focus in just about any environment, and then crop up in my work constantly and without much conscious effort.

So, what are those obsessions? Well, I’m obsessed with heritage and the narratives of self that we construct to create identity. I’m obsessed by cultural “norms”—particularly those of Western culture—and the ways they can be transgressed by writing in different, hopefully ever-more-creative ways. I’m obsessed with the secret lives of inanimate objects, and the way people use objects to hold parts of themselves—a basket becomes tied to a memory becomes tied to a story and, all of a sudden, that object holds life. (Although, that’s a very person-oriented view of objects. I’m also haunted by the concept of Object-Oriented Ontology and how that might look in fiction.)

I find inspiration from other artists, of course, and I’m not picky about it. Songs, paintings, sculptures, films, and obviously writing, but also graffiti, quilting, carpentry, glass blowing, video games… I’ll grab any medium from any time period and try to understand what makes it tick and find ways for it to influence my own craft. I’m particularly productive when I’m reading literary theory and scientific works, which sounds so boring, but for some reason engages my brain in a more productive way, sometimes, than fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry do.

I mentioned that one of my obsessions is heritage and narratives of self, and that translates into being ever-inspired by my ancestors. On my father’s side I have Karuk, Mexican, and British ancestry, while on my mother’s I’m Norwegian, Irish, Spanish, and quite a few more. I’m fascinated by the interplay of these heritages. What does it mean to be both British (tracing a colonial line back to 1632) and Native American? Spanish and indigenous Mexican? These considerations inspire me and my work.

How would you describe your creative process?
Feast or famine. I’ll have about six months of extreme productivity, and then six months of hibernation. I’ve tried to force myself to work during hibernation with widely varying results. Nowadays, that hibernation period is usually spent submitting work for publication and letting things “percolate.”

On a more granular level, my pieces usually spring from voice or turn of phrase. I’ll hear a good opening line in my head, and I’ll follow that thread. Usually this happens at midnight on Tuesdays, which is incredibly inconvenient. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and find a thread during normal waking hours (rarely). Often, I create stories, at at least the shells of complete stories, in a single sitting, but I’ve also spent days and weeks working to find the next moment too.

Once I have the raw material, I assess the themes that emerged that I didn’t anticipate, and think more analytically about how to exploit or focus those themes. I send the piece to my writing group and hear their feedback. I tweak, and tweak, and tweak. I read aloud to my long-suffering family. Sometimes I’ll take a week or two away from the piece, sometimes a couple of years. I have found when something is not clicking there are only two things that can fix it: more time or more technique.

Occasionally, I’ve given a piece a vacation from my meddling and months down the line I read a book or story that uses a move that sparks something and I go, Oh, that’s possible. That’s what that piece needs. It’s so obvious now!

At some point, I’ll realize that the piece is no longer benefitting from being scrutinized and I’ll ask it if it is ready to test the waters of public consumption. Usually it says, Yes, get me the hell out of here. At that point, I stop thinking of it as mine and start thinking of it as a highly respectable client who has contracted with me to get it out in the world. I start looking for its home, and writing less… and then the cycle repeats.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
I graduated with my MFA in 2020, so the entire last half of my final semester was a very bizarre time. It felt like I hadn’t really been writing for two years, or studying, or involved in a wonderful program in the labyrinthine halls of CalArts. Everything was disjointed. So after graduation, I had this weird sense of, wait, am I actually a writer? Did I dream that?

The most exciting part of receiving a fellowship was that it affirmed my craft and my focus. It is the first significant public recognition of my work I’ve experienced, and it came at such a crucial time psychologically.

Receiving a fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts, specifically, was simply a dream come true. It’s been a reach goal of mine since I first learned of Literary Arts while studying at Pacific University from 2014-16, but I never submitted before because I either a) lacked confidence, or b) was in the middle of an intense program. The stars really aligned this time around, and I was stunned to be selected.

What are you currently working on?
I’m currently, slowly working on revising the novel I wrote for my thesis at CalArts. It’s called (in my head, at least) The Wind Chaser, and is an amalgamation of The Wizard of Oz, Native culture, and Western tropes. I feel like it is starting to come together at last!

Simultaneously, I’m always producing new short stories (when I’m not hibernating). On that side of the equation, I’m working on creating a collection built around those obsessions of heritage and identity I mentioned earlier, specifically Karuk identity. So much of Karuk beliefs and culture are tied to our ancestral land, though, that I have realized I need to be there to fully explore this aspect of my history. That’s actually what I’m going to be using this fellowship to accomplish, and I am so excited!

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Apply! (Wait, I guess that’s implied in “applicants.”)

Okay, my second (serious) piece of advice—other than the usual, “make sure your writing sample is top notch”—is this: even if you’re not sure you’ll be in contention for the Oregon Literary Career Fellowship, go ahead and fill out the full application with all the supplemental materials. Use it to really push yourself to interrogate your project. Not only did this clarify for me precisely how I would choose to use the funds, but also it gave me a more general goal to strive toward.

Whether I won the fellowship or not, I suddenly had to face that I needed be to able to go to the ancestral lands of the Karuk in order to write more and better stories, and that gave me motivation to continue searching for other sources of funding that might be viable to support that goal. Plus, when I heard I’d been awarded an Oregon Literary Fellowship, I was immediately able to look back at my materials and figure out how to budget my funds wisely.

Basically, with any award, find a way to make the application work for you. And, the unexpected does happen. You might just surprise yourself! I was planning to submit to OLA for at least a few years or longer before being awarded. I was shocked to be selected this year, and it made me grateful I put the extra time into coming up with a solid plan back when I applied!

Excerpt from “The Lightning Jar”
(Joyland Magazine, February 2021)

It starts with spirits. Strong spirits. Many years ago, we captured lightning in a jar and relabeled it homemade sauce. And from this jar we drank sips of lightning together every New Year’s Eve like it was our own ancient religion to do it. Like the ancestors demanded we burn the hair out of our nostrils, scald our insides clean, sear ourselves of all dirt as propitiation before ever we spoke their stories.

The world is made of stories. 

Butch does not make the lightning, but we know that Butch drinks lightning on days when he shouldn’t, and more than he should. Frankie makes the lightning and gives it to Butch, even though Pinkie and I tell him he shouldn’t. Pinkie and I don’t live nearby anymore, so we have no way of stopping him. Frankie says he can’t stop Butch any more than we can. This is also a story. It bothers me not just that Butch drinks too much, but that he drinks the same lightning year-round, transgressing our tradition-that-is-not-really-a-tradition. And then I wonder what a tradition is other than a story more than two people agree on repeating over and over. 

Coyote circles, snarls, smiles. Resplendent is he, Coyote. Magnificent. Magnanimous. He takes her empty chair. He lounges with a predator’s ease. Coyote stares across the fire, the flames glinting in his eyes—his yellow eyes, his golden eyes made for firelight or from it.

Coyote speaks…

Judge’s Comments

“Emily Woodworth’s story of four cousins gathered around a campfire to share in a jar of moonshine, in loss and in remembrance of their fifth cousin, Joy, now gone, is a hypnotic study in grief and slow recovery. Woodworth’s fiction is enriched by its evocations of the author’s Karuk heritage and of Karuk mythology. The result is a story that is gut-wrenching in its memorial of a life lost and in its struggle to find redemption in family and the communal art of storytelling.”

–  Judge Jaswinder Bolina

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