By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Leslie Pietrzyk, author and teacher, described herself as “the most stubborn person in the world.” Her stubbornness has paid off though. After having her collection of short stories, “This Angel on My Chest,” rejected by several other publishers, Pietrzyk won the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Award from the University of Pittsburgh in 2015. Pietrzyk visited the University of Missouri-St. Louis to read from her the book on September 29. The stories all feature a young grieving widow and use unique narrative forms. Dr. Mary Troy, professor of English, said: “The stories in this book are held together by an intelligence and an artfulness, a way of looking at the same thing from different perspectives and positions. This collection works, in fact, by being a true tour de force.”
Pietrzyk’s determination extends beyond just publishing though. She also uses it to deal with difficult personal struggles in her own life. She chose the book’s subject matter from her own experiences as a young widow. Pietrzyk, whose first husband passed away of a heart attack at 37, said, “[It was a] profound and life-changing experience.” Shortly after his passing, she wrote the first story in the book, “Ten Things,” followed by her second novel, “A Year and A Day,” about a young girl whose mother commits suicide. Pietrzyk said that though nothing was factually the same, that novel was about her grieving.
After these two pieces about her loss, Pietrzyk said that she thought that she was done writing about that time in her life. However, while at a writer’s colony, Pietrzyk had a breakfast conversation with a poet about reading subcultures. The idea piqued Pietrzyk’s interest and she returned to her studio and started writing a list of subcultures about which she could write. Pietrzyk included cooking school and various jobs on her list, as well as “Young Widow’s Support Group.” “The minute I saw that I thought, ‘…That’s going to be really hard,’ and then I also thought ‘Oh, I have to do that one,’” Pietrzyk said.
Pietrzyk began writing “The Circle” while at the writer’s colony, but that single idea generated more ideas. “By the end of the day, I didn’t know it would be a book, but I knew that I would be writing more stories from that time,” Pietrzyk said. “The assignment that I gave myself was [that I would write about] one true hard thing from my personal experience. I was going to blend fact and fiction and see what happened…It was clearly the right time to write all of those stories.”
The material for the book was emotionally demanding though. Pietrzyk said, “A lot of grieving is actually obsessing.” She created distance from the content by using odd forms such as a multiple-choice quiz, a list, the use of second person, and a craft lecture piece, “One True Thing,” which uses nine different points of view. “For me, using the second person is a good way to create some distance…it’s like, this didn’t happen to me, this was someone else, ‘you,’ and so I think that was why I kind of turned to those different points of view and different forms in the book,” Pietrzyk said.
In addition to struggling with the difficult emotional content, Pietrzyk said that she also found herself questioning whether or not her grief was enough in comparison to other people’s trauma and grief. In the end though, Pietrzyk said though it may be selfish to write about one’s own grief, that’s fine. “Grief is universal…and yet it’s utterly individual,” Pietrzyk said. Pietrzyk avoids sentimentality in her stories through self-reflexive humor though.
This is not the first time that UMSL has celebrated Pietrzyk’s work though. Her short story “This Day With You,” was published in the first edition of UMSL’s literary journal, Natural Bridge, in April 1999. “That story is still one of my very favorite stories,” Pietrzyk said, “It was exciting that I had that little tiny but special place in the Natural Bridge archives and history.” The story, which takes a more traditional form, also draws on facts from Pietrzyk’s life. Like the characters in the story, Pietrzyk grew up in Iowa and worked at a movie theatre.
Pietzyk’s connection to Natural Bridge kept her connected with Troy. After Pietrzyk won the Drue Heinz Literature Award, Troy invited her to do a reading at UMSL. In addition to the $15,000 prize and book printing, the award gave Pietrzyk an endowment for travel to universities for readings, so she accepted the invitation. Pietrzyk said that she chooses what she will read at a reading based on the audience and time frame. Though she said that readings can be difficult because she “gets the good and bad of seeing people respond,” she said: “I really love doing readings… I think it’s exciting when a reading goes really well. The audience is energized. I am energized. People will tell me secret moving things that they wouldn’t normally announce…It’s very moving.”
In addition to writing fiction, Pietrzyk also writes blogs and essays. Though she said that essays are “tortuous,” she said that she could use her own voice in her blog, which focuses on writing and some cooking. “I can have anything I want to say, and I can say it,” she said. “I could be humorous. I could put parentheses all over the place (which I love to do). That was me.”
As with many writers, Pietrzyk also teaches at a low-residency Master’s of Fine Arts program at Converse College and at a Master’s Program at Johns Hopkins University. “The thing I love about teaching is that it’s exciting when I can see people get better in their work. I love when I can help somebody find a story that maybe they were afraid or nervous to tell, but I know it’s the story they were born to tell. I love when students ask questions and ask hard questions that make me think,” Pietrzyk said.
The reading was held at 7 p.m. in the Social Sciences & Business Building. Students from Troy’s “Chekhov and His American Heirs” course attended the reading, along with other students and faculty. Pietrzyk read “A Quiz” before taking questions from the audience and giving advice on publishing. She said that as a student, she did not feel like she was the best in her program, but she had learned that students need four things to succeed: talent, luck, perseverance and hard work. She pointed out that students have control over two of those things.
Chelsea Dryer, graduate, English, said: “I felt like Leslie was really knowledgeable about her craft. Usually I get really bored when people read their stories aloud…But I was really enrapt listening to her read and there were lots of parts where I chuckled. I smirked. I shook my head in recognition of universal truth and experience.”
Marie Kenney, graduate, creative writing, agreed and said, “I liked listening to someone who is excited about what they wrote…and [can] inform other writers about how they can do the same sort of thing.”
“Learn to be stubborn and persevere,” Pietrzyk said. “If what you really need to do is write, you have to find a way to just keep going in spite of all of that… Support writers. Read books. Buy books from writers you care about. Support independent bookstores, and literary journals. And if you are interested in being part of a writing community, do the work to help create that for yourself. Start a writing group. Start a journal. Start a small press. It’s really not that hard to do those things.”
An audio file of Pietrzyk’s reading will soon be available on the Natural Bridge’s website at blogs.umsl.edu/naturalbridge.
To find out more about Leslie Pietrzyk, visit lesliepietrzyk.com