Tapping into "untapped potential" with Kelsey Bowen
Can you tell us a little bit about the moment you realized you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a junior in high school my English teacher forced me to take a creative writing class after reading one of my personal essays. Figuring it would make an easy A, I enrolled, and right away I fell in love. But it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer until the end of my senior year. We had to enter a writing contest for class, and to be honest, I’d forgotten to write my piece, so I stayed up all night working on a personal essay and submitted it early in the morning. I didn’t think again about it until my teacher called me to tell me I’d won the contest. I vividly remember that call from my teacher — in the fitting room with a line of potential prom dresses covering the wall. Truthfully, I didn’t think I stood a chance and looking back, it has the hallmark of a young, inexperienced writer. But my heart was there and maybe even some untapped potential — I like to think that’s what they saw in me, but it’s definitely what I saw in myself.
How did you learn your necessary skills?
Read, read, read! This is painfully bland advice, but it’s the best I know! Finding authors that you like will help you hone your voice and helps you figure out the kind of stories you want to tell.
Are there specific opportunities or challenges that focused your career?
I’ve had the privilege of working as a copy editor and at the literary magazine at the University of Memphis. It helped me figure out that I not only want to write, but I also want to help others write. I think storytelling is one of our most powerful tools, and everyone has a story to tell but sometimes they don’t have the right words ... yet!
Who do you consider as your most influential mentor?
Pamela Denney was actually a journalism professor I had at the University of Memphis. She never had me write poems or pages of dialogue, but she definitely taught me how to write. She never minced words and always told you what you needed to hear even when it was hard to hear. I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today without her. There simply aren’t enough "thank you"s to give, but Denney, here’s another one: thank you!
How do you measure success in your work?
Success is hard when you're a creative. With writing, the growth is gradual, so it’s almost impossible to see it in realtime. I find I feel most proud of myself when I look at my recent writing as opposed to something I wrote years before. The progress I've made becomes evident, and I always inspires me to keep writing.
What artist or writer inspires you the most?
Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Ocean Vuong, C. D. Wright, Donna Tartt, Joan Didion, Emily Dickinson, Jeanette Walls, and Carrie Fisher to name a few off the top of my head!
Do you have a creative hour, or a time/ place/ or activity that inspires your creativity?
I am definitely a night owl, so my creative juices really start to flow the closer to sundown we get, but I always keep a journal on me in case I get an inch. When I do write, it’s always with music. Music makes it easier for me to picture a scene in my head, so it’s easier for me to piece it together. Whenever I feel like I am in a rut, I watch a movie. It does the trick 90% of the time.
Do you have a ritual or do you set specific assignments for yourself?
I am an organization fiend, so I map out my stories as much as I can. Do I stick to this map? Almost never, but it’s nice to have it there. It’s like a jumping-off point for me. I get easily distracted too, so it’s important for me to set daily, weekly, and monthly goals. This ranges from figuring out character names to writing an entire chapter.
As a kid what did you see yourself doing as a career?
I had dreams of being a forensic anthropologist when I was in high school. I read a book about it, which I then wrote a personal reflection on, which is the essay that landed me in a creative writing class.
What told you ‘this is the life for me’?
My Introduction to Poetry class was the first writing class I took in college. I was still fresh-faced and wide-eyed. This was the first time I was around people who talked about writing the way I thought about writing. I felt at home quickly. I was unsure if I had made the right decision when I got to college, but as soon as I sat down in that class I knew I was going to love it.
What compromises have you had to make in order to succeed? Has it been worth all of your effort?
I majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. That was definitely a risk, and something I struggled with for a long time. Sometimes I feel like I am still struggling with it. But I know I can’t see myself doing anything else with my life. It’s comforting knowing that I’ve found my passion. It’s also a lot more versatile than one would think. Communication is a building block of every society, so no matter where you go, someone is always going to need a writer.
What do you love about being a creative in Memphis?
Memphis is such a vibrant city with a rich history. It’s easy to pull inspiration from anywhere and anyone. I feel like almost everyone I meet is creative in some way, and our community does a great job of fostering that creativity. I have so much pride for Memphis, and that makes me want to show it my writing.
We asked Kelsey to send us an excerpt of a current piece she is working on:
"It's the same hair as well. Long and unruly. Yet now, there were no hands twisted in them. She runs a finger down the length of her hair, starting at the crown of her head, framing her face, and past her shoulders. Her fingers are cold like a stranger's. A tear traces the edge of her nose. soothing the red skin. The irises of her eyes shiver, and in the solitude only motel bathrooms can provide, she lets herself drown in a wave of sadness, grief, sorrow, misery, despair, loneliness. More tears streak down her face as the rest of her fingers burrow into her hair. It has to go. It's a sudden decision but made with confidence. The brash and brief confidence these decisions usually call for. She reaches in the backpack, pulling out a pair of scissors. They glint in the yellow light. Eden returns to the mirror. Again, she squares her shoulders and meets her gaze."
Kelsey will be teaching Creative Writing for our Arrow Summer Camp!