In the catalog entry of one of the writing courses she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, short-story author Carolyn Ferrell asks in the synopsis, “How do we, as writers, transform lived experiences into stories on the page?”
Even for Ferrell, who delivers Franklin & Marshall College’s 2019 Bank Prize Craft Talk Feb. 27, transformation is a challenge. She refers to an observation by novelist Janet Frame: “putting it all down as it happens in not fiction; there must be the journey by oneself, the changing of the light focused upon the material, the willingness of the author herself to live within that light … .”
Author of the acclaimed short-story collection, “Don’t Erase Me,” the 57-year-old Ferrell has an interesting life from which to plumb for fiction writing. She is the daughter of a German mother and an African-American father; the two met while her father was a soldier stationed in West Germany during the Cold War era. Ferrell was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised on Long Island.
“I talk about a lot of things I get from my mother,” Ferrell said in a phone interview. “But when I use details from life, I have to make sure the deeds are digested, in order to move forward and fictionalize them.”
In the mid-1980s, Ferrell chose to live in her mother’s homeland when she received a Fulbright Scholarship. During her three years there, she taught high school, lived in Heidelberg and the western part of what was once the divided capital city of Berlin, and played violin for several orchestras.
Ferrell transforms her life experiences in several stories in “Don’t Erase Me.” According to the 2007 “Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers,” "Many of the landscapes follow the trail of Ferrell’s own experiences—the South Bronx, suburban Long Island and Germany.”
In a recent essay, Ferrell said, “I reimagine my mother meeting my father for the first time,” even though the real-life events were far from the story Ferrell had written.
As the Bank Visiting Writer, Ferrell chose this year’s recipient for the Jerome Irving Bank Memorial Short Story Prize, Noah Williams, a junior English major. She described his story, “Hollow Point,” as “an incredibly heartfelt read.”
The prize is endowed by Lawrence Bank ’65 in honor of his late brother, a graduate of Hobart College. Jerome wanted to become a writer, but died before realizing his dream. Bank hopes the contest encourages students to take the chance and follow their dreams.
For young aspirants, Ferrell said she likes to caution against editing oneself off the page in the interest of achieving a “perfect draft.”
“As a writer, you really have to fight the urge toward perfectionism, because if you don’t, you might wind up losing the essence and energy of your piece,” she said.
For “Don’t Erase Me,” Ferrell received wide acclaim with the Art Seidenbaum Award of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Ploughshares John C. Zachiris and the Quality Paperback Book Prize for First Fiction. Her work is anthologized in several compilations including “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” and “Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers.”
The Bank Prize craft talk with Carolyn Ferrell is 4:30 p.m. Feb. 27 in the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House Reading Room. Ferrell will read from one of her works at the same location at 8 p.m. The event is open to the public.