Speak: How an Author Used Her Voice

Photo Credit: Stephanie Wolf

“For me, being a writer is like being a medium. I channel the stories as they come to me. A character forms for me when she or he begins to whisper in my ear. I write what these characters tell me to write. I write their stories.”—Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

When I was doing my undergrad, I was lucky enough to have Sarah as a professor at Front Range Community College, and to learn from her first hand. One of the things that impressed me most about her was the unapologetic way that she spoke about her own mental health, and the things that she’d been through in her life. It was refreshing to meet someone who was so well and truly herself and wanted to share her experiences in the hopes that it might help others.

Sarah 2Photo Credit: Cassandra Kotnik

I had never taken a creative writing class before, and she encouraged me to explore some of the aspects of my writing I’d never really thought about before (turns out, I’m not a half-bad with horror writing) and to embrace all of the things that I’d deemed as “weird” or “uncool”.  She taught me that writing can be a form of therapy, and that nothing is ever going to be perfect the first time around. If I look back on things, I would say that Sarah was one of my most influential teachers, and I’m lucky that I got to learn from her.

She was in the final stages of publishing her first novel and wasn’t shy about sharing her experiences with her class. It was the first time that I’d been able to glimpse the publishing industry and being able to see that process first-hand was what prompted me to pursue a career in it. She encouraged us to be creative, and to follow our story ideas even if they turned out to be not great. She’s what some people might call eccentric, but to me she’s one of the only truly genuine people I’ve ever met: she collects Edwardian-style nightgowns and can often be seen writing in them, and draws large amounts of inspiration from fairy tales and their meaning and interpretations.

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz is not only an author, she is also an artist. Known for her eclectic style and beautiful prose, Sarah tackles the difficult issues of mental illness andFig the family dynamic in her debut novel, Fig.

The story follows Fig, a girl growing up on a farm in Kansas, from the ages of 6 to 18, as she deals with her mother’s deteriorating mental state. When Fig is only 6, her mother insists that they are being chased by a dingo and forces her daughter to run home with her in what is, for Fig, a terrifying experience. While the dingo is the reason given, Fig remembers that there was a program on TV about an Australian murder trial and, at that point, Fig begins to doubt her mother’s grip on reality. Throughout her story, Fig learns how to come to terms with her mother’s schizophrenia, her own OCD, and drive to self-harm.

The lyrical storytelling and beautiful imagery in this book are high points throughout the story that were inspired, in part, by Schantz’s own life: She, too, had a more free-spirited upbringing, as well as an OCD diagnosis in her early twenties.

Schantz grew up in Boulder, Colorado, literally surrounded by books: Her parents owned and operated the nationally recognized Rue Morgue, a book store specializing in mystery novels. It’s actually named after The Murders in the Rue Morgue, an 1841 novella by Edgar Allan Poe that is largely considered the first true detective mystery. Schantz learned to feed her imagination and her creativity in this shop, which stood along Pearl Street until it was sold in 2000.

Schantz dropped out of high school, and began hitchhiking and train-hopping through the midwest. She worked odd jobs, and lived a truly bohemian lifestyle until she made it back to Colorado. She eventually petitioned to test into Front Range Community College (having not received her GED), before transferring to Naropa University Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics to receive her Bachelor’s and MFA.

Many of her personal experiences are reflected in her novel, Fig, and she is quoted in Midwestern Gothic as saying: “The Calendar of Ordeals was the first emotional truth that showed up, pretty early on, and for a very long time the novel was actually titled this. When it showed up, it was by accident, or perhaps by slippage for lack of a better word…However, as I continued to write the book, I realized that inheriting the disease was not Fig’s only concern, or even her biggest one. Rather, she wants to save Mama from the mental illness, and she tries to do so via the ordeals. Calendars in general became an important component of the book…” (This article can be found here, on www.midwestgothic.com)

I was blown away by Sarah’s use of her own experiences to inform those of the characters that she was writing. It’s brutally honest in places, and I strive to bring my writing to that same level of beauty and truth. I’ll always be grateful for her help and encouragement in my own writing.

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz can be found online at www.sarahelizabethschantz.org, where you can stay up-to-date with her. Fig can be found online here, here and here.
Sarah 1Photo Credit: Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

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Keira Mountain has always had a love for books and literature. She is a full-time student at the University of Colorado at Denver in pursuit of a degree in English Writing, and hopes to find a place in the publishing industry as an editor after graduation. When she isn’t in class or at work, you can find Keira on her yoga mat, teaching at CorePower in Boulder, reading or cooking.

3 thoughts on “Speak: How an Author Used Her Voice

  1. Keira-

    Awesome post! I haven’t heard of Sarah Elizabeth Schantz before, so I really appreciated learning some more about her life and work. It’s incredible that you were able to experience her genius first-hand and gain some insight and guidance from her work as an author. It’s also awesome to hear some more about her novel. Fig seems like an incredibly interesting work that tackles some pretty heavy subject matter. You’ve definitely done your job of peaking my interest! I’ll have to check our Schantz’s works when I have some free time.

    In terms of constructive criticism:

    -I’d like to see you build on your “conclusion” a bit more. The ending of this article seems a bit abrupt after you delve into the wonderful works of Schantz’s novel. I’d like to hear a bit more about why your experiences with her meant so much. You skim the surface on how her use of personal experience has impacted you and how you strive to write in the same brutally honest manner that she does. This is absolutely incredible, but I felt like I wanted to know a bit more. If you’re able to, or feel comfortable expanding on this, I think it would make your post that much better.

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. Keira,
    What an interesting woman and inspiration. I really like this piece and your description of Sarah and her life.
    -I wonder if you could start with your description of Sarah, explain her and her story first. Then at the end you could focus on your relationship to her as your professor and what you learned from her. This separation, instead of starting with personal, shifting to her story, and back to personal at the end might make it easier for readers to follow. Like “woah she actually knew her? So awesome and surprising.” 🙂
    I think you did a really great job. I’ll definitely be looking up Fig.


  3. This is my soft spot and I find it difficult to critique. I love writers talking about being writers. And with this article we have a writer writing about another writer and their writing. There’s always an inspirational moment that happens.

    Okay so I do have a critique. While this is a nice feel-good piece, there’s something missing. I want something real thrown in here. At the end you say, “It’s brutally honest in places, and I strive to bring my writing to that same level of beauty and truth.” Writers very often have periods in their writing careers that are absolutely not fun, and while they’re inspirational and motivational, they’re not always pretty. I want to see that. I want to know more about the nitty gritty of transforming YOUR writing since you were the one inspired, not just the light and fluffy.


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